Excusing the Bible?

This post is mostly me just thinking aloud. It seems that much of the anger toward and rejection of Christianity by secularists is rooted in the specifics of the Bible, and not so much against beings like God in general, or the God of Classical Theism. They don’t like a lot of the things Yahweh said and did, nor do they like the creation story (as it contradicts evolution when taken literally).  I get the clearest sense of this focused rejection when a Christian philosopher or apologist makes a general argument for God (in the classical theist sense) or a general criticism of naturalism, and his opponents change topics and start picking at things in the Bible (a perfect example of this is Sam Harris’s reply to the arguments William Lane Craig made against naturalizing ethics: see this debate).

I must admit, there’s a lot in the Bible that’s hard to reconcile with modern sensibility. In a previous post I argued for why this isn’t always a bad thing (in an ultimate sense). But sometimes I get the feeling that I’m really having to do a lot of intellectual, and ethical, gymnastics to make the Bible something I can accept.

One can always save a bad theory if one is willing to make enough ad hoc adjustments to it to handle evidence or reasons against it. Think about a paranoid schizophrenic: he may have paranoid delusions and delusions of grandeur, but when presented  contradictory evidence, he often finds some way to explain away the evidence and keep his delusions. I could think there are aliens on Mars that are oppressing the human race, and when confronted with the lack of evidence, I simply point to some government conspiracy to hide all the evidence. You get my point.

Is this what’s happening with Christians defending the Bible? What does one do when one confronts passages in which Yahweh behaves in ways that seem deplorable to moderns? We could always explain it away, given enough creativity on our part. We can find some excuse, certainly. It really is impossible to prove that Yahweh is a bad god.

What to do? One could just “white-fist” it and hold on to the Bible, all else be damned. That is an option. Or one could liberalize the Bible: accept only parts of it, or interpret parts of it as merely symbolic, allegorical (actually, regarding the creation story, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be a scientific account, but one highlighting God’s power and authority).  One could also come up with independent evidence for God and the Bible. It would have to be fairly powerful, though, to overcome the difficulties. One could also argue, like I did, that we judge the Bible from a modern perspective, and that the modern perspective isn’t necessarily the ground truth regarding morality or reality — we can point out what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” Or one could do a combination of all of these. I think that’s what I’m doing at present; a little of all.

Why? Why all the work? Why not just forget about Christianity and turn secular? For me, I find myself frightened by the alternative: something akin to Bertrand Russell’s defiant atlas standing against the alter of chance and the ultimate purposeless ruin of the universe. Russell’s alternative has no appeal to me. There is also “the fear of God” that is in me. That fear is very powerful, and it won’t go away any time soon. There is also hope; hope of a better future life, if not on earth, then in heaven. And there is the peace that I sometimes feel when I do get close to God. At present, these are enough to motivate me to keep at this work. And, let’s not forget, there is a chance that the Bible really is, in some sense, true.

Add to this my dissatisfaction with naturalism. As time goes on, I’m finding the whole notion of the universe that is, ultimately, explainable by science unacceptable. Numbers, math, truths of logic, they don’t depend on science; science depends on them! The apprehension of a realm of moral truth: again, this is apart from science. The naturalist alternative: some form of subjectivism or relativism, some form of moral antirealism. That is, we accept that raping children for fun is neither right nor wrong, ultimately; we just happen to not like it very much as a people, and find limiting it useful. And what about the first person perspective, consciousness? The fact that it exists at all is something that seems beyond a science limited to the third person. So there definitely are cracks in the naturalist/materialist wall. But are they big enough to let the whole Bible through? That’s where I still struggle.

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.