Can any historical information be taken from the New Testament, at all?

I hear this a lot from skeptics: If you try to give historical evidence for anything in Christianity, you can’t use the Bible. It’s circular, for one thing, using the Bible to prove itself. And another thing, it’s just a bunch of fables with no historical worth. Only people who believe in the Bible already will accept it. That is, only people who already accept the Bible as the Word of God will be convinced (and unfortunately so).

So if someone were to try to present historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection using texts from the Bible, skeptics would likely object as I just have above.

Is the above a good argument? I don’t think it is. For one, it seems in danger of a logical fallacy — False Dilemma. In dilemma-style arguments, the arguer presents two options, one of which is obviously unacceptable, forcing us to accept the other option. The fallacy occurs when there are more than two options. Here the skeptic seems to argue that either you accept the Bible as the Word of God, or you have to reject it completely. Since the former is unacceptable, the Bible must be rejected completely.  But these two aren’t the only options. One could believe the New Testament to be partially true, for one thing. Another thing, one could accept certain claims made by the Bible without claiming it’s the Word of God.

Still, there’s more to the above argument than this. The argument might be that the Bible has so many obviously irrational claims, that nothing in the book can be trusted. Would you believe anything said by a schizophrenic who thinks he’s Napoleon, or the Real Donald Trump (the one you see on TV and Twitter is an impostor, placed there by the space-alien-supported Illuminati)? Probably not. That’s how we should treat the Bible.

Or, maybe less harshly, the book is really, really, old. It was written back when people weren’t as careful as they are today. They jumped to supernatural conclusions, were much less disposed to critical thinking, more gullible, more ignorant, and so on. Given the unbelievable nature of much of what’s in the book (numerous miracles, for instance), we can’t trust the book at all.

It’s an inductive argument: since the New Testament contains many things that are unbelievable, we can infer that everything in the book is unbelievable.

Another, perhaps more careful, argument along the above lines is this; the Bible is full of unbelievable claims. And although these alone don’t prove that everything in the Bible is false, there is a big burden of proof now placed on all claims in the Bible. There may, indeed, be some ordinary facts described in the Bible that really happened, but unless they are independently corroborated, we can’t rationally accept them. That is, if it’s in the Bible, it’s guilty until proven innocent, given all the other nonsense the Bible says.

William Lane Craig, a philosopher and resurrection specialist, doesn’t accept this argument (the last one was made, more or less, by Richard Carrier regarding the Gospels in his debate with Craig on the Resurrection). One reason that he doesn’t accept it is that the New Testament isn’t just one document. The New Testament is a compilation of separate writings. Each of the Gospels, furthermore, are themselves compilations, writings that include other writings and oral testimony. In fact, a whole discipline has arisen to try to figure out all the different underlying sources behind the Gospels. The many sources gleaned from the Gospels, plus references in other parts of the New Testament, serve as independent corroboration.

A lot of skeptics wouldn’t consider this corroboration at all. For it’s all from the Bible. But it would be begging the question to assume that we can’t take as corroboration different passages from different authors or books in the Bible, without knowing that everything in the Bible is untrustworthy in advance. They are separate sources, complied decades/centuries after they were written.

However, skeptics could reply that the Gospel authors, and all the other New Testament authors, had discrediting ulterior motives. They were concerned with aiding the fledgling Christian movement in one way or another. They cannot be trusted.

This is an ad hominem against the Gospel authors. Ad hominems reject claims because of some feature of the person(s) making the claim. They had such and such motivations is one. But what they say might still be true, and their arguments may still be good (e.g., a defense attorney has a motive to defend her client — that alone doesn’t mean her claims are false or her arguments are bad).

Still, there are all those miracles and other unbelievables in the Bible. And there are the apparent inconsistencies. So there still is that inductive argument. My reply to this is a counter-example. It’s one that Craig uses in his debates about the Resurrection. Consider Matthew 28:

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Look at the last line: “And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” Even if we don’t accept that Jesus rose from the dead,  don’t accept miracles or God or the supernatural, couldn’t we acknowledge that it’s plausible to believe that the story of the stolen body was widespread among Jews at that time? If it wasn’t so, the entire motivation for writing this passage is gone, even if the author of Matthew was just a fanatic trying serve the young Christian movement. If it weren’t true, moreover, including it would probably dissuade Matthew’s audience, for his audience would know whether such a story was currently widely circulated (his audience was probably Jewish). It makes much more sense to say that he and other Jews of his time knew about the story and that he needed to provide some kind of answer to it to defend his movement.

I don’t know if you would accept this reasoning, but doesn’t it at least seem possibly rational to reason this way about a passage in the New Testament and accept a claim in it, even without confirmation from outside the Bible?

This reasoning was used by Craig to support the claim that Jesus’ tomb was empty, which, in turn, was used to support the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. However, even if skeptics disagree with the last use, I think the claim about the empty tomb itself is reasonable.

I should clarify. In the above I was not trying to argue that everything in the Bible should believed. What I was arguing against is the view that nothing in the Bible should be believed.

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Path to Atheism, the Second Most Rebellious Worldview

I think that a lot of atheists would insist that their path to atheism is one of discovering that it is unreasonable to believe in God, much like it is unreasonable to believe in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. My hypothesis is different. It seems to me, the more I look at debates and such between theists and atheists, that atheists make a choice about how they view the world that prohibit belief in God a priori (that is, right at the start, before any evidence is examined). This choice seems so natural and obvious to atheists that they may not even see it as a choice. It’s the choice of epistemology (way of knowing, forming beliefs). I think that this choice is ultimately rooted in the desire for autonomy and a bit of rebelliousness.

The Surface Path

To be clear, I’m not saying that atheists reject God for purely emotional reasons, of course (a lot of Christians seem to think this — they probably do because many of them are pretty emotional themselves). I’m not saying that people get pissed-off at religious people and become atheists because of this. Or that they might be horribly disappointed at unanswered prayer, or something really bad happening to them or someone else, and reject God as a result. Intellectual steps are what I’m interested in. Here’s what I think they are. They aren’t always made explicit, but I think that atheists usually go through these.

1. Choose an epistemology that focuses on (perhaps exclusively) tangible, practical, “hands-on” values and goals either through usable knowledge, or theories that aid in the prediction/control of nature.

2. Point out that such an epistemology has no need of God.

3. Claim that the fact that such a godless epistemology is successful in meeting tangible goals is evidence against God.

4. Reject God.

I don’t think reflective atheists would deny that they have went through all of these at some point in their adoption of atheism. To them, these steps seem obviously right. Key to this path is the first step.

The choice in 1 goes back a long way, with roots in Francis Bacon, and later, explicit endorsement in John Dewey and his “bulldog” Sidney Hook. A current example of 1 is Sean Carroll’s rejection of God as a hypothesis because it doesn’t produce new information about how the world works. Atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss also seems to point to this, as does the atheist philosopher Alva Noe. Noe points out that belief in God will not help you fix your car. To be fair, Carroll (and the others as well, probably) also rejected God as a hypothesis because he didn’t think it was testable. However, the multiverse hypothesis isn’t really testable either, yet they are all willing to entertain it. I think that for them, as for most atheist scientists, it is 1 that is doing most, if not all of the work.

In general, natural explanations are the ones that have hope of allowing us to predict and control nature. These are, in turn, what are useful in developing new technology and solving social problems. In short, natural explanations are what best suit humanistic goals.

2 is insisted by every atheist. Just about anything you can think of could possibly have a natural explanation (How does one rule out all possible natural explanations?). So it’s a short logical step to God not being necessary for such an epistemology.

Regarding 3, that godless science is successful in meeting tangible goals, is obvious to everyone. Theists have to agree. But is this really evidence against God? Only if there’s reason to expect that natural science wouldn’t be successful if God exists. I honestly can’t see why it wouldn’t be successful: if anything, the success of natural science is something God wants, just as long as we don’t see it as the end of all knowledge. Natural science is certainly successful, but limited in its scope (Phillip Goff makes a similar point here about math, physics and subjective experience).

But maybe it’s more like this: God is not useful, for atheists have all that they want in science. I find it hard to argue with this; for given what atheists value (see 1 above), it makes perfect sense to ignore God in the way that they do.

The Deeper Path

tumblr_ndg58ybg4m1tr3d06o1_500Well, now that the intellectual path is out of the way, maybe I do need to return to emotions: to know what is useful one has to know what is valuable. And what is valuable to a person is rooted in what they want. What is it that atheists want, at bottom, anyway? I can’t speak for all of them, but I think that it’s expressed very well by atheist philosopher A.C. Greyling (I discussed it here); it’s autonomy. It’s doing what you want, choosing your own path.

Atheism is the second most rebellious worldview: it won’t bow down to or follow any mere person. One’s personal autonomy is limited by only one thing: empirical reality, “the facts.” It is surpassed in rebelliousness by one worldview only: postmodernism. Postmodernists refuse to bow down to anything, not even reality! *

Consider another passage from the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel:

. . . I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself . . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. . .Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world. (From The Last Word, italics mine)

Compare atheism with Islam, the Arabic word for submission. Theism is all about bowing down to a person. The apostle Paul tells Christians to “present their bodies as living sacrifices.” Atheists devoted to personal autonomy could never accept this, even if they believed in God.

So, as a result of this basic preference, or choice, atheists choose an epistemology that is all about how they can know more, predict more, control more, do more. This epistemology finds no ultimate purpose in the universe, but this doesn’t bother atheists; for them, purpose is what they make it. All this epistemology can do is find out how to get from A to B. They decide whether B is worth getting to.

God, of course, could never be part of such an epistemology, for God will not be controlled, predicted, or used. Any epistemology that could learn of God would also have to be prepared to submit to God.

So, in essence, it’s really down to autonomy versus submission. I’m reminded of Milton’s famous line: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

Notice that none of this has to do with the truth about whether or not God exists. It’s more about whether a person could discover God, should He exist. Atheists make epistemological choices that forever make God unfindable. They claim to be open minded, but they really aren’t. Once one commits himself to this sort of pragmatic empiricism, and only accepts explanations/hypothesis that “tell him how the world works,” he will never, ever, ever, find God. God will have no part of that. And even if God obliged and provided, say, an obvious miracle, the atheist’s methodological naturalism, empiricism, or whatever you want to call it would prevent him from accepting the miracle, and he would find some other possible way of explaining the miracle naturally, or, at worst, would simply say “We cannot know what really happened here.” Even God couldn’t get through to this person!

My feeling is that atheists would reply, “Well, there are no such obvious miracles, so your point is moot. Show me the obvious miracle, and then we can talk.” I think this misses the point, however. What I’m discussing are the logical implications of choices atheists make; it logically follows from the epistemology that atheists adopt that they can’t ever find God. It would be pointless for God to perform one for them, for it would have to fall on deaf ears, as long as they hold on to their epistemology. To be truly openminded they would have to let go of the epistemology.

A Complication

The complication in this is morality. Although some atheists deny that morality is real, in my experience the vast majority of them do hold to an objective morality that they feel everyone should submit to. This morality is, of course, not empirically knowable (Hume, G.E. Moore, and a host of others have made this point). They also, for the most part, try to follow it. So autonomy is limited further still — it’s limited by “the facts,” and it’s limited by what’s right and wrong. Just as we do not get to choose the facts, we also do not get to choose what is right or wrong. We merely decide whether we will obey. And, by in large, atheists do choose to obey. Atheists, in general, desire rebelliousness, not wickedness.

Given the above, the key difference between atheists and theists is, once again, personal. I remember having a very long but interesting discussion with an atheist colleague in grad school about the Euthyphro problem aimed at deriving morals from God. Putting the problem’s details aside, for him the worst thing about morality from God is that it is personally derived; this makes morality arbitrary. He could only give credence to moral theories that are based in an impersonal principle. Following a law is reasonable, but a lawgiver isn’t.

So, summing it up, atheists will bow down to the impersonal, not the personal. If morality is indeed impersonal, and somehow either reducible to empirical facts (Patricia Churchland and Sam Harris argue that it can: I’m not convinced), or to some set of objective, but immaterial, impersonal facts (like those of math, logic), then the atheist can be a consistent moral realist (someone who believes morality is objectively real). Otherwise, he will have an internal conflict in his worldview. He will have to either reject atheism, or objective morality.

The Atheist’s Wager

So what of it? Is the atheist unreasonable? In one sense, no. For he’s convinced that God’s existence, from the start, is extremely unlikely, and that there is some secular basis for morality. There is knowledge to be had, and being open to explanations that don’t provide usable knowledge about the world (i.e., “God did it”) could threaten at least some of this. So he puts his bet on natural science. He doesn’t fear the consequences. If he’s right about God’s inherent low probability, then this is a good bet.

But he might not be. For atheists don’t have good reason to think God is inherently improbable. Dawkins’s Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit, for example, is a poster child for bad atheist arguments (I argue for that here). Atheist mockery is more telling — from that their intuition that God is inherently improbable comes from false comparisons with beings that really are inherently improbable, such as fairies, Thor, The Flying Spaghetti Monster. But the God of theism isn’t really like these beings (I argue for that here). About that God, all the atheist can say is that he doesn’t know what the inherent probability of God’s existence is. And we can’t forget that saying that God’s probability is unknown is not the same as saying it is low.

Also, there is something that’s sacrificed in this wager: value, ultimate purpose and meaning. Going back to morality, atheists will indeed submit to it. Consider the intuition that right and wrong is somehow based on value. For empiricists, value is personal, subjective. It comes from what some person wants, desires. But atheists also put their desires aside to do what’s right. This would be clearly irrational for an atheist to do, if value is merely the desires of some person (somebody else, in this case) and there is no God. The only way a value-based morality could be anything close to objective is if based on the values of God (or some being with universal authority). I would have to admit it wouldn’t be completely objective, as it would be coming from a person, but it would be as universal as the other things God made, including the physical universe.

Also, purpose and meaning themselves seem to be worth something. Even the ardent atheist Daniel Dennett claimed that the secret to happiness is finding something greater than you are, and committing yourself to it. It’s part of human thriving to be part of something larger, to, well, bow down to something greater than we are. Theism wins this one in spades.

But, at bottom, whether or not a wager is reasonable depends on the probabilities and the payoffs. Here we don’t know what the probabilities are, but we have some idea of the payoffs. Theists can retain much of what atheists want: there is no reason a theist can’t enjoy pretty much all of what science delivers, or contribute to the discoveries science makes. But theists also gain the possibility of true, ultimate purpose, and a more satisfying view of what is right and wrong, and why it makes sense to submit to it. They also gain the riches of experiencing a reality that transcends the material, and the comfort of belief in an afterlife.

One final note. I just saw my father-in-law pass away. When I comfort my wife, imagine the shock she would receive if I told her that her father no longer exists; what existence he has is reduced to the corpse we viewed! The only comforting thing to hear is that he’s in a better place, a place where he is no longer crippled. Theists can take this comfort. Atheists cannot. Given that atheists are, well, betting on unknown probabilities, it’s hard for me to see what the advantage of that is. But that’s just me.

* This one of Richard Rorty’s (well-known pragmatist/postmodernist) complaints about atheist realists (those that believe in reality): they reject the Cross, but they still bow down to the god of science. Rorty bowed to no god.

The “Bigfoot” Argument

From Reddit: “Do you believe Bigfoot exists? How about fairies? Vishnu? If not, how much “faith” does your disbelief require? Does one need positive evidence that these things don’t exist?”

The Context: A Christian redditer was tired of anti-christian sentiment coming from atheists online (and on Reddit). There was some sympathy in the thread, and some explanations or justifications for the hostility (Christians deserve it, one way or another), and some atheist polemic. This quote was an atheist’s response to the claim that atheists believe that God doesn’t exist without evidence.

The Point: One doesn’t need evidence to believe that God doesn’t exist because God is like Bigfoot, fairies, and Vishnu, and one doesn’t need evidence to believe they don’t exist.

Why? Because Bigfoot, fairies, and Vishnu are unlikely to exist to begin with! And God is like them.

Which God? If we are talking about Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the God of theism.

But what is that God really like? God is an immaterial, personal being that created the universe. God is often thought to be omnipotent, omniscient, and morally good.

Is this God like really like Bigfoot then? Honestly, I don’t see the resemblance of God to a hairy, big, physical, human-like creature.

All right, what about fairies? They are tiny supernatural human beings (with wings?) with special powers. Is God like that? Not really. God isn’t a physical being, and so doesn’t have a diminutive stature, nor wings, nor a magic wand (only physical creatures could have such things). The only things they have in common with God are being supernatural and having powers. But that’s not ridiculous in itself.

What about Vishnu?

If you are thinking of a blue, magical, human-like creature with four

arms, then this being isn’t really much like the God of theism either. If you are thinking instead of the formless metaphysical concept of Brahman, then I’m not sure you can rule such a thing out without any evidence. In fact, the less you anthropomorphize Vishnu, the less you can say about its (his? her?) inherent plausibility.

The same goes for God. The supernatural, that is, what may or may not be beyond the universe as science sees it, can’t be dismissed without evidence, for that dismissal implies that we know something about its inherent probability, that we know that such things are highly unlikely in themselves. So I think the comparison of God with fairies and Vishnu doesn’t make the atheist’s point here.

Back to Bigfoot. Does this atheist wrongly  assume that Bigfoot is inherently unlikely? After all, how inherently unlikely is a large, hairy humanoid, given all the humans and different species of apes on the planet? I don’t believe in Bigfoot, but I don’t rule out his existence of either. To do the latter I’d have to suppose that he desires not to be detected and is clever enough to avoid the confirmation of its existence all these years. But since Bigfoot is a physical creature, the odds of a such a creature evolving and remaining hidden from us all this time are not high. So there are decent arguments that Bigfoot is unlikely, given his unusual size and the fact that we have no real confirmation of one. But it’s arguable.

God, on the other hand, shares none of these characteristics. He is not an ape, nor even a physical being. In fact, the God of classic theism is probably more like Brahman, when considering His/Hers/It’s (no specification of gender here) inherent likelihood at least (though God differs in many other ways). We have no way of saying whether God is inherently likely or not. Evidence is required either way.

So I would say to this rather insensitive atheist redditer: “You assume God is like Big Foot, and think you then get this massive burden of proof advantage. But nobody has to grant your assumption, nor give you this advantage.”

William Lane Craig vs. Stephen Law: Another Case of One Man’s Modus Ponens is Another Man’s Modus Tollens

In October of 2011, William Lane Craig squared off with Stephen Law about the existence of God (video above). Law advanced the hypothesis of an evil god, arguing that just as theodicies aimed at reconciling a good God with evil could be offered, so could “theodicies” aimed at reconciling a evil god with good be offered. This possibility is supposed to discredit theodicies for a good God. Craig accepts that the evil god theodicies are possible, and that is not unreasonable to accept the possibility of an evil god.

During the rebuttals, it seemed that both Law and Craig were talking past each other. Here’s my attempt to clarify. I think it’s yet another case of “one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens.” (Hereafter MPMT) In this case I’ll start with  modus tollens first. According to Law:

(1) If theodicies for an evil god can be reasonable, then it’s reasonable to accept the possibility of an evil god.

(2) It’s not reasonable to accept the possibility of an evil god.

(3) Therefore, theodicies for an evil god cannot be reasonable.

Then he continues:

(4) If theodicies for an evil God cannot be reasonable, theodicies for a good God cannot be reasonable.

(5) Therefore, theodicies for a good God cannot be reasonable.

(6) Therefore, it is unreasonable to believe in God.

Most of this is pretty self-explanatory, except (4). One would have to argue that the theodices for a good an evil god are similar enough to support this premise.

Craig’s modus ponens:

(1) If theodicies for an evil god can be reasonable, then it’s reasonable to accept the possibility of an evil god.

(2′) Theodicies for an evil god can be reasonable.

(3′) Therefore, it is reasonable to accept the possibility of an evil god.

And, of course, if Craig’s counter goes through, then (4-6) of Law’s argument breaks down.

Law seemed pretty frustrated with this reply, but didn’t really clearly attempt to refute it. He merely insisted that this wasn’t the way to interpret his argument.

That sort of reply isn’t acceptable. Craig offered a counter argument (on my interpretation), one that needs to be answered. And, as in any case of MPMT, it is a contest between (2) and (2′). Law assumed, and insisted on, (2), but provided no real argument for it. Craig didn’t really argue for (2′) either.

Yet, because Law was on the offence here, I think he needs to support (2). Right now it’s merely an assertion, one that carries a lot of weight in his argument. Craig doesn’t have to accept it. Unless Law supports the idea that the possibility of an evil God is unreasonable (good luck with that — even Descartes struggled with that one), there is no real force behind his argument as a whole.

Perhaps Law is thinking that belief in God in general, whether good or bad, is ridiculous. He’d be in the company of most atheists: they believe God is inherently (apart from any evidence) implausible, (note the many comparisons of God with the Flying Spaghetti Monster). But that’s just an atheist thing. You can’t just assume this in a debate about God without begging the question.

 

Should a Rational, Educated Person Believe in Life After Death?

If you asked a neuroscientist or a science-oriented-person-in-general, you would probably hear, “No.” After all, the mind is the brain and when the brain dies, so does the mind. Nothing survives death. There are no “souls.” The view that the mind is distinct from the brain and can survive the death of the body is called dualism, and it is very unpopular with neuroscientists and philosophers. It is so unpopular, in fact, that well-known philosophers such as Daniel Dennett don’t even need bother with a refutation of it — they just merely say “no one believes that anymore” and dismiss it (see here) to move on to their own form of materialism.

On the other hand, the vast majority of the American public (80% in 2014) does believe in life after death. When Dennett said nobody believes in dualism anymore, he was obviously referring to academics and neuroscientists — they are the ones that matter, I suppose. Are the experts right and the American masses wrong here? Has dualism been proven false?

No. In fact, Dennett himself more or less admits this. Consider this quote regarding dualism:

This fundamentally antiscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up. (Explaining Consciousness, p. 37)

So the reason Dennett rejects dualism (and life after death) because it’s “antiscientific,” because it’s “giving up.” It’s not because it has been shown to be wrong. It stops scientific enquiry. Good enough.

More could be said, of course. Scientists, by in large, follow the principle of methodological naturalism; they do not consider the supernatural in their investigations. This doesn’t rule out the supernatural per se, but when following this principle leads to all the advances the neurosciences has enjoyed, it makes one doubt that there is a supernatural thing like the soul behind it all. Much remains to be explained in the neurosciences, but the fact that so much has been explained has given materialist neuroscientists and philosophers reason to at least place a very heavy burden of proof on those who do believe in souls.

But is that all that can be said? Should all the poor, benighted masses stop going to church, believing in the afterlife, believing that loved-ones who have passed away are in heaven as part of their “educational advancement?” I think that the above reasoning could be challenged on two points. The first is the use of burden of proof among soul deniers. They require acceptable evidence for the soul. Unfortunately, this may not be possible even if there are such things as souls, for if anything were claimed to be evidence for the soul, materialists would simply say that there is a perfectly good natural explanation for it.

Emotions are evidence for the soul, you say? Well, we can explain that with the activity of neurons in the hippocampus, the presence or absence of certain neurotransmitters.  What about the ability to learn? Neural nets in computers can do that: we have trillions of such in our brains. Decision making? Look to the prefrontal cortex. Falling in love? Oxytocin. And so on. On the other hand, if there is no current neurobiological explanation for the phenomenon, then the materialist can either say that we should wait for one (give neuroscience some more time, for it has an excellent track record), or say that the phenomenon doesn’t exist. Free will (taken as most people mean it), for example, may not have a neurobiological explanation, but people like Dennett or Patricia Churchland would simply say that it doesn’t exist. The same goes for first-person experience, consciousness. Consciousness (or at least certain features of consciousness, such as the raw experiences known as qualia) is notoriously hard to explain just in terms of the brain. Those aspects of consciousness not explainable by science are deemed fictions, merely a part of a pre-scientific “folk psychology.”

Notice that these moves can be made even if there are such things as souls. And it would be nearly impossible to disprove them, given that they could keep making these same moves against any attempt to disprove them. In other words, materialism is unfalsifiable — even if it were false, there is no observation or reasons that could ever disprove it. Hence it is untestable, and ironically, unscientific.

You might say, “Ok, so it’s impossible to win an argument with a die hard materialist. So what? That doesn’t mean there are souls or that we should believe in them. ” And you would be right regarding the first point: materialism’s unfalsifiability doesn’t imply that it’s actually false, or that there are souls. But what about the second point? Maybe there might be reason to believe in souls, even if they can’t be proven to exist.

There are practical reasons. Belief in the afterlife gives people comfort. It allows them to hope for loved ones who have passed, and a hope for a reunion in the future. It also gives reason for people to “be good,” even if they can get away with being bad. They might be punished in the afterlife, or the next life. Another is that the afterlife is a central part of most religions. Abandoning it means giving up one’s religion. One other thing, it allows us to forget about death. As we get older, we start seeing the end more clearly. Belief that the end really isn’t the end allows me, at any rate, to not obsess about it as much.

Ok, I know a lot of people wouldn’t see the previous paragraph as much of a motivation. They have settled into a scientific worldview and have become comfortable with it. But I’m not speaking to them. For them, their bet has been made; they are betting on naturalism. But it is a bet; we can’t forget or deny it. Naturalism (the view that only scientific things can exist) is not known to be true. It’s a hunch, a take, a perspective. But so are worldviews that allow a place for the supernatural.

When it comes to whether or not to accept naturalism, it’s not about evidence, really. It’s about what first seems plausible to a person. She forms a worldview. Then she goes and interprets the evidence in light of this worldview. But as to deciding which worldview to take, evidence isn’t the ultimate deciding factor — it’s also about what she values, fears, and hopes for.

Given that naturalism/materialism hasn’t been proven, and that it has such a hard time with consciousness, free will, rationality, and other features of the mind, I don’t see it as the only bet a person could make. One could acknowledge all that neuroscience, as science, and not as philosophy, says, and still bet on the afterlife by believing in it. And for many people, the benefits outweigh the costs.

Christians Should Just Admit the Bible isn’t Ethical by Secular Standards

In recent years a moral outcry has arisen against the Bible among secularists. Many of the actions/commandments in the Bible are moral abominations to them. Three noteworthy examples: God’s command to Abraham to burn Isaac on the alter, God’s wiping out, or commanding Israel to wipe out, entire peoples, and God’s prohibition of homosexuality.

As a Christian I might feel compelled to defend these actions of God. But I know that such defenses (e.g., God wiped out peoples because they were exceedingly evil and deserved it) would not only fail with secularists, but would make them question my own morality for offering such a defense.

Indeed, I would argue that there is no defense of the actions of Yahweh in the Old Testament that could work within a modern, secular moral framework. That is because of some of the assumptions of that framework. These assumptions have been with us for so long, and feel so right, that they seem axiomatic. Here are some of them:

  1. All persons have the same basic rights (e.g., from the American Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness).
  2. All of morality is to be based on these.

Things that follow:

  1. We have the right to do whatever we want, just so long as we are not interfering with others.
  2. We have the right to have our lives and property protected.
  3. No one has the right to take away our lives, freedom, or property, except as a means to protect the rights of others, and in ways approved by a government formed by the people on the authority of the people.

If these are true, Israel’s wiping out groups of people at God’s command couldn’t be justified, as no one person or society could ever have that kind of authority to kill. Prohibiting homosexuality is wrong as well; we have the right to whatever lifestyle we want if no one is hurt by it.

In addition to these, there are factual (that is, non-moral) assumptions secularists make that would make the Bible unjustifiable:

  1. There is no life after death.
  2. There is no clear, undeniable revelation from God.

If these last two are true, no one could have the right to kill because “God told me to,” for there is no clear revelation from God. And killing a person is the worst thing you can do to someone because there is no life after death. A dead person cannot be compensated. Given all of the above, the only possible justification for killing a person would be to prevent further killings. Thus the command for Abraham to kill Isaac (and the genocides, for that matter) has no justification at all! To kill Isaac would be merely a horrible, pointless act commanded by an imaginary divine fiend.

So, at bottom, the Bible cannot be justified within a modern, secular moral framework based on the principles of modern, liberal democracies.

What can a Christian say in reply? To start, Christians cannot accept the two factual claims. As I am focusing on moral principles, I won’t argue against them here. But it’s pretty obvious that secularists and Christians must disagree on these. On to the moral principles.

First I want to admit that the secular moral principles are, in a certain sense, correct. That is, they work in providing rules regarding how human beings ought to treat each other. I also think they are grounding principles for governments: we humans ought not to govern ourselves any other way. But are they the deepest truth regarding morality?

What if they are only a special case? For example, there are also principles regarding ethical treatment of animals that aren’t like the above principles. Not all secularists are vegans or vegetarians — many eat animals. They often have pets. Some visit zoos, Sea World, and other such places. They might kill household pests. They definitely allow the killing of fetuses. That is, they would agree that not all life has the above rights, only persons do. Sure, there are some rights subpersonal life forms have; we might be okay with killing pigs for pork, but we wouldn’t be okay with torturing them for fun. We might be okay with abortion, but not abortion for the sake of selling biomaterials. Still, subpersons have less rights than persons.

What about superpersons, beings with a  higher level of consciousness, ability, intelligence, emotion, and awareness than humans have? Might they be to us as we are to pigs? That is, the claim that all humans have the same basic rights might only apply to humans. If, for the sake of argument, God did exist, it seems plausible to me that He wouldn’t be at the same level of rights as human persons.

John Locke

To support this idea, consider, for a moment, the source of human rights. Two basic competing notions have been offered. John Locke, the one responsible for much of the discussion of rights behind the Declaration of Independence, claimed the source was God (so does the Declaration itself). God is the granter of rights. If so, then might he also be the revoker of rights? One thing is clear, the rights God enjoys would have to be of a higher level than our rights if our rights get their authority from God.

Thomas Hobbes

The other notion is that of Thomas Hobbes: we humans are roughly equal in ability and intelligence. Since we know that we are not strong or smart enough to dominate everyone else and keep safe, we agree to sacrifice some of our freedom by granting basic rights to ourselves and others. That is, human rights are really a contract between completely selfish people who know the limits of their own physical and intellectual power. On this view, human rights are the result of a political process, not, as in Locke, the motivation for it. If this is the case, then if God existed, He wouldn’t need to grant any of these rights, as a self-interested being, as he in no danger from the likes of us.

If these are the only two basic kinds of options, then it seems that God would be beyond and above the rights listed above. God is not beholden to them.

But Christians insist that God is good, not merely that he isn’t violating any social contract. In other words, what would be God’s morality that would make Him this wonderful being, if He doesn’t respect our rights? From the Bible we can find two parts: a part about our relationship with God, and a part about how we humans should treat each other. Regarding the former, from what I can tell, it seems that God has both great wrath and great love. Regarding wrath, He wipes out people who deface His name in the Old Testament. He is extremely jealous when it comes to who Israel worships, and punishes them when they “cheat on” Him.

God sounds horrible here, but think of it this way: have you ever been in love? Didn’t you feel jealous when he/she flirted with (or had sex with) other people, especially when you thought you were in a committed relationship with him/her? You felt betrayed, hurt, and angry. The God of the Old Testament is a superperson in love with an unfaithful people. A jilted lover at that. Read the OT yourself with this in mind (a good example the Book of Hosea —There he promises to punish Israel for her infidelity, and then restore His relationship with her, all with rather romantic sounding poetry); it will explain a lot.

Add to this the bad things these people were doing to each other (the lack of justice we find the prophets often preaching against), and we have the reasons God punishes them so horribly.

Now as human beings, we are limited in how we may treat unfaithful lovers. Again, we have agreed to a social contract to live in a democratic society, and we need to respect each other’s basic human rights. All we can rightfully do is break off the relationship with the unfaithful partner (and maybe rant about them to a friend). As for injustice, we can point to the law, or engage in peaceful protest, or, at the very most, defend ourselves. But God isn’t limited in His rights in the way we are. He isn’t in our social contract. Democracy is for us, not for Him. God may be within His rights to destroy an unfaithful creature He brought about.

The above view of a God in love isn’t a very flattering view of God at first glance, I admit — a superperson in love with creatures so far beneath Him that He justifiably wipes them out when they are unfaithful to Him. My justification is very counterintuitive. This is because we (or those of us fortunate enough to grow up in a democracy) have been taught from early childhood that democracy is right, that all humans have basic human rights, and so forth. And I agree with this, as far as human-human relationships go. But I’m treating that as a special case here: if it is, God’s morality might be beyond this.

I maintain that God still would be a good being, nonetheless, with all of the above. The fact that God would condescend to such a relationship with us is noble. And His anger at our refusing it is justified by the fact that God is so much higher than us and worthy of us. And our infidelity is all the more punishable for this. And let’s not forget: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” God’s Son was his most beloved; he was willing to give him to us for our salvation.

What about the other part of morality: how we ought to treat each other? There are the God-given rights that Locke and the Declaration of Independence list. But God never speaks of “rights” in the Bible. Still, Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourselves.” In fact, Jesus captures the whole of morality in this same passage. From Matthew chapter 22:

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Modern democracies with their rights don’t go this far. Jesus commands us to love other people as much as ourselves, even our enemies. The key word here is, of course, love. It’s a morality of love, not rights. Modern ethical systems don’t mention it.

Back to the original problems. Regarding genocide, God has this right. God is still good, for God condescends to love the human race, despite its comparative insignificance and ubiquitous evil. And humans are pretty evil; when I look a the thoughts in my own mind, I know I have evil in me. So will you, if you are honest. God commanding Israel to kill, again God has the right. Add to that the view that clear revelation is possible, then Israel is also justified in wiping out groups of people (If the revelation is true, of course. Most of the killings in the name of God are not the result of genuine revelation.).

What about Abraham and Isaac? First, God has this right as creator. Second, there is the possibility of God raising Isaac from the dead. If God exists and life after death is possible (secularists assume neither is true), then God is justified in asking for this to test Abraham’s faithfulness. He could restore Isaac. And Abraham might have thought this too.

The prohibition of homosexuality is harder. Honestly, I don’t have an answer to this one, other than God finds it offensive. But again, we are talking about God, not us. Just because I might find it distasteful doesn’t mean I have the right to prevent others from enjoying it. I’m a citizen of the United States; so are they. We, as citizens, have a civil right to our lifestyles. But God is not a citizen of the United States. He’s God. He designed humans to be a certain way, and has the right, as a superperson, to prohibit them from departing from it.

So I did try to justify God, as I said I shouldn’t do. No doubt a secularist would not accept this justification. There’s no way she can, with her assumptions about reality and morality. But if these aren’t the ground truth, and if a case could be made for God and for life after death, then I think my justifications do have some weight.

So what this amounts to is that Christianity is consistent in its own worldview regarding how it views reality and morality. So is secularism. But these views are not consistent with each other.

I did a lot of work to come to an obvious conclusion. I did it to make a related point. The the point is regarding the fact that that secularists think Christians ought to be ashamed when God doesn’t fit into their secular idea of morality, or that God’s not fitting into this morality is a legitimate objection to Christianity. My point is that of course the Bible doesn’t fit into secular morality; it’s not supposed to.

Bottom line: God cannot be justified in a secular moral framework. Nor should He be.

Who Made God?

Children often ask this. The quick answer: God wasn’t made, He was always there. Only things that weren’t always there have to be made.

But atheists may still complain about God being used as an explanation because it stops inquiry. We should always look for some other explanation because of this. Saying “God did it” stops science. Sometimes they also insist that to use God as an explanation, we need to explain God first.

I think these complaints are based on a confusion between arguing that and explaining how. When theists use God as an explanation, they are arguing that. That is, they are trying to argue that it is true that God exists and did such and such. Theists have to admit, however, that this does not explain how. It doesn’t provide details about the processes of how the universe was made. Because “God did it” doesn’t explain how, atheists reject God as an explanation.

But we can use explanations for both of the above purposes. We can use an explanation to uncover a mechanism, or we can use an “inference to the best explanation” to argue that a certain event occurred. An example: I can explain why the sky is blue by pointing out different features of light and the absorptive properties of gasses in the atmosphere — that’s explaining how. Or I could argue that my friend was awake late last night because there is an email in my inbox from him with a timestamp of 2:20 am. In the latter case I am not trying to get into the details of how the universe works so much as show that my friend was awake at that time. Notice that I don’t need to have an explanation for why my friend was awake to make the point: what kept him up is a different question from whether he was up.

In the same way, when theists offer arguments for God’s existence involving God as an explanation, they aren’t trying to uncover mechanisms that can be used to further scientific inquiry. They are merely arguing that God exists; they are arguing that, not explaining how. And just like my friend’s email, arguing that God exists isn’t the same as showing how God exists.

So arguing that God did something may not advance scientific goals, but that in itself doesn’t mean that God didn’t do it, or that God isn’t a good explanation. It just means that God doesn’t suit the goals of atheists.