I Changed My Mind, So Kiss the Ring

Recently Randal Rauser wrote a blog post about what he calls “The Myth of the Authoritative Deconvert”.  By this he is referring to the idea that “deconverts from a particular belief community provide a uniquely authoritative insight into that community…and thus a uniquely authoritative basis for rejecting it” [1].  He gives the following example of how this sort of thinking might look:

“Oh, you want to live in New York? It’s a hellhole, believe me: I lived in Brooklyn for twenty years [2].”

Near the end of the post, he pushes back against this reasoning by pointing out that it’s common for deconverts to have a chip on their shoulder, and thus they may not be the best source of information when it comes to their former beliefs [3].  This is interesting because the logic of this observation cuts in all directions, to include people who change their mind about any set of ideas. After all, if I should take someone like John Loftus’ assessment of Christianity with a grain of salt, then I should do the same with Lee Strobel’s assessment of atheism.  Does this mean that there is no value in listening to people who have changed their mind?  I sure hope not!  I changed my mind about the truth of Christianity, and I’d like to think that I have some interesting things to say!

Regardless, I don’t think Randal’s point was to denigrate the unique perspective of people who “switch sides”, so to speak.  By my lights, the moral of the story is that while having changed one’s mind about something might give a person a unique perspective on their former beliefs, it doesn’t automatically grant them an authoritative perspective.  If they harbor irrational anger at an old position and/or are overzealous to spread their new one, they might not be interested in steelmanning.  If they never had more than a superficial understanding of the position they left, they may not even be capable of it.  So, while “it’s a fairly common move to use one’s past experience in whatever belief system to imbue present claims with authority”, the question that really matters is whether or not someone actually knows what the hell they’re talking about [4].

But who am I kidding?  Faux authority is fun.  I changed my mind about something, and that automatically means that I have an amazing grasp of the issues.  Why haven’t you bent the knee yet?

 

References

  1. Randal Rauser, The Myth of the Authoritative Deconvert
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. I’m quoting something I said in this tweet.  

 

Btw, Horrific Suffering is a Serious Problem for Theism

A few years ago Christian apologist Cameron Bertuzzi wrote a short piece on the problem of evil for his website entitled “If God Exists, Why is There so Much Suffering?” [1].  Since it is clearly written and covers the issues well, I thought it would serve as a good springboard for talking about the subject in general.  Let’s begin this discussion (as he does) with an example to make the problem more palpable.  In Fydor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” there is a discussion between two characters about the suffering of children, and a picture is painted of a young girl enduring horrific abuse from parental figures.  Here is a window into some of the dialogue:

Imagine the little creature, unable even to understand what is happening to her, beating her sore little chest with her tiny fist, weeping hot, unresentful, meek tears, and begging “gentle Jesus” to help her, and all this happening in that icy, dark, stinking place!  Do you understand this nonsensical thing…Tell me, do you understand the purpose of that absurdity?  Who needs it and why was it created? [2]

Now suppose someone pressed Cameron by giving some sort of evidential argument from evil – what might he say? [3]  Let’s take a look at each potential response in turn.

First Try: Skeptical Theism

His first response is to suggest that “perhaps God has a reason for permitting the suffering in the world, but this reason is beyond our comprehension” [4].  After all, “our inability to think of a reason God has for allowing the suffering in the world, doesn’t mean there is no reason” [5].  Though there are different varieties, this type of response is referred to as “Skeptical Theism” in philosophy.  It is also important to note that while Cameron doesn’t mention it in the body of the post, in one of the footnotes he concedes that there is significant controversy among philosophers (including many theists) as to how effective these sorts of responses ultimately are to evidential arguments from evil [6].  Why is that the case?  There are many things I could say, but let’s focus our attention on one example – namely, the fact that appealing to potential human cognitive limitations doesn’t really defeat an evidential argument.

Suppose Cameron produced a case for cosmic fine-tuning, and I replied with – “well, just because you can’t see a naturalistic solution to fine-tuning doesn’t mean there isn’t one” – I doubt he would be all that impressed with such a response.  While I have technically pointed out something potentially true, the observation doesn’t really accomplish much since we are all forced to weigh the evidence as best we can, even if total certainty is impossible.  In the same way, if a theist asserts that there might be some reason I can’t see for extreme instances of suffering, that observation alone doesn’t do much to undermine specific evidential arguments.  In summary, it doesn’t make sense to think that appeals to human ignorance legitimately defeat evidential arguments from evil without thinking they equally defeat arguments from fine-tuning (for example) [7].

Second Try: Soul-Building

The next strategy is to put forward the soul-building theodicy.  Cameron explains that “suffering is necessary to achieve the greatest goods” and the existence of suffering allows for “the production of virtues like self-sacrifice, courage, empathy, and so on”[8].  Additionally, the reality of an afterlife solves the problem created by the existence of people who die before seeing the ultimate value of suffering [9].  The problem with appealing to supposed greater goods in this way is that such an appeal doesn’t really make sense with other theistic beliefs.  Allow me to explain.  Traditional notions of theism entail that God is unsurpassably great – the greatest possible being [10].  For God to be unsurpassably great, it would require that “prior to creation, all goods are already contained in God” [11].  Philosopher J.L Schellenberg explains:

Every worldly good that permits or requires evil is greatly exceeded by a pure good of the same type existing in God prior to creation…This is interesting.  What it forces us to notice and take seriously is that since (say) instances of courage and compassion presuppose evil or its permission, these goods cannot exist in God prior to creation.  And yet God is then unsurpassably great! [12]

Within Cameron’s own worldview the best relational goods are contained in and modeled by the trinity – an unsurpassably deep, loving, and good relationship that exists without the presence or possibility of evil.  It seems totally conceivable that God could create a world that modeled these pure goods, and there is every reason to think that such a world would be superior to ours because it would model the greatest possible relational goods in God himself.  While there is much more that could be said about this topic, at the very least these reflections show that it is not at all obvious that “suffering is necessary to achieve the greatest goods” [13].

Concluding Thoughts

Cameron’s goal in writing his post was never to provide an in-depth discussion, but rather a summary of potential theistic responses to suffering.  In the same way, this post is meant to be an overview of why many find those responses unconvincing.  Hopefully both have served their purpose.

 

References

  1. Cameron Bertuzzi, If God Exists, Why is There so Much Suffering?
  2. Quoted from Erik Wielenberg, God and the Reach of Reason: C.S. Lewis, David Hume, and Bertrand Russel, p. 48-49
  3. For a good statement and defense of such an argument, see: Jeffery Jay Lowder, In Defense of an Evidential Argument from Evil: A Reply to William Lane Craig
  4. Cameron Bertuzzi, If God Exists, Why is There so Much Suffering?
  5. Ibid
  6. See John Danaher, The End of Skeptical Theism? (Index) for a good overview of the consequences of embracing skeptical theism.
  7. Jeffery Jay Lowder, When Are Appeals to Human Ignorance a Legitimate Defeater of an Evidential Argument?
  8. Cameron Bertuzzi, If God Exists, Why is There so Much Suffering?
  9. Ibid
  10. J.L. Schellenberg, A New Logical Problem of Evil, in “The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil”, p. 34-48
  11. Ibid
  12. Ibid
  13. I discuss this line of thought further in my post Christianity and the Problem of Horrific Suffering

 

Biblical Violence Again: Helping Apologists Bite the Bullet

As you can probably tell, I have a keen interest in the topic of biblical violence.  In fact, I’ve written about it on more than one occasion.  But what explains this fascination?  Quite simply, I know what it’s like to be a Christian with a literalist bent.  I know the mental gymnastics involved in maintaining such a position, and now see through what I take to be an incredibly dodgy edifice of apologetic “answers” to skeptical objections [1]. Another advantage of possessing this background knowledge is a good understanding of which buttons to push to make conservatives really uncomfortable – and honestly, I think this is important work.

Many people have built a dam of sorts in their mind to hold back the ocean of cognitive dissonance that comes from rationalizing the slaughter of children (for example), and if we want to have any hope of breaking through, we need to stop swinging wildly at it with a baseball bat and start placing some strategic blocks of C-4.  Where are these tactical pressure points, you ask?  Let’s first consider how these issues are normally presented.  The common apologetic lines used to defend literal interpretations of OT violence include speaking of collateral damage in war, the irredeemable culture of the people, “mercy killing” when it comes to killing kids, and the divine right of God [2].

Please.

These talking points are not only bad, but they miss the point of the most serious objections almost entirely.  This is where it helps to know your audience – if you are talking to a person who thinks it fundamentally makes sense to punish children for their parents crimes as many of the texts in the Hebrew Bible seem to indicate, get them to just say that.  Work past these carefully crafted smokescreens and force them to start explaining why those evil, evil babies deserved to die – either because they are literally guilty for Adam’s sin, the sin of their parents, or both.

If you happen to be talking to a person that rejects this sort of view, kindly point out to them that their moral system still implies that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with stabbing a toddler to death.  As philosopher Erik Wielenberg explains, “the intrinsic goodness (or evil) of a thing is the goodness (or evil) it has in virtue of its own nature, in and of itself” [3].  So if God is perfect, he could never directly command someone to perform an evil action right?  If that’s true, and your conversation partner believes that God commanded the Israelites to butcher small children – guess what?  There can’t be anything intrinsically wrong with it, because God can’t command sin.

These are the issues at the heart of the dispute, and focusing on any others just muddies the water.  Sure there are some who will boldly bite the bullet in spite of all this, but so what?  At least force them to be consistent about it.

 

References

  1. See Thom Stark, Is God a Moral Compromiser?  A Critical Review of Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster”  for a book length treatment of such “answers”
  2. See Randal Rauser, “Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive”: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide for a summary and critical examination of these talking points.
  3. Erik Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, p. 23

Smoke and Mirrors: The Tactics of Presuppositionalist Keyboard Warriors

Have you ever had a strong desire to bang your head against a wall?  Do you like talking to people who have a fetish for attempting to dominate others in conversation?  Well, have I got some news for you.  These desires can be met, and more!  All you have to do is try to engage a presuppositionalist on the internet!  To be fair, not all presups are as obnoxious as some of the knuckle-dragging examples online might lead you to believe.  It’s possible to find a few cordial ones, and those who actually participate in academia are often much more nuanced and generally seem to be likable people (James N Anderson of RTS is one example).  But this is unfortunately not true of many others.  Philosopher Alex Malpass explains:

The best representatives of the presuppositional apologetic are trying to illicit a ‘Copernican’ shift in the way that the worldview is argued for. The worst representatives are not trying to do this. What they are up to is trying to confuse the non-Christian…instead of addressing the actual arguments against Christianity. Any confusion on the part of the interlocutor is then pounced on as evidence that the argument has been won by the Christian. There is a conceit behind such tactics…[1]

Consider this example by well known presuppositionalist blockhead Sye Ten Bruggencate:

Screenshot 2019-12-19 at 2.29.30 AM

Before going any further, let’s be clear about definitions.  When we use the term “reason/reasoning”, what are we talking about?

In philosophy, “reason” refers to…a faculty or ability in virtue of which one makes appropriate doxastic judgments that have a high likelihood of approximating to truth [2]

It is important to keep this definition in mind as we return to the topic at hand.  There are only two options for an interlocutor when asked Sye’s question: either fall into the trap by trying to use their reason to demonstrate that their use of reason is valid (circular), or admit that they can’t do it.  Once this happens the presup generally begins to act as if they have a way out of the problem, and will “start describing the attributes of their God and how rational he is – how logic is part of his divine nature and he created a rational world – and that we’re made in His image with an innate capacity for logic and were designed with reliable cognitive capacities” [3].  But here’s the rub – when they give this just-so story, notice that “in the very act of explaining all of this to you [they have] used and relied upon their own cognitive capacities and inferential procedures…and thus they’ve argued in a circle” [4].  Put another way, they have fallen into the very trap that they have laid for others – using their reason to give you reasons that their use of reason is valid.

IMG_0082

It turns out that no one can “justify” their use of reason.  To question your reason, or to try to defend your use of it in any way, requires you to use your reason.  The relevance of this should now be clear – our cognitive faculties are the inevitable starting point for every person (even if they claim otherwise), and we are all in the same epistemic boat [5].  How, you might be wondering, could they make such a crucial oversight?  Well it turns out that when people are more interested in using rhetorical tricks to beat others into submission, they tend to make bumbling errors.  Who knew?*

 

References

*There is obviously much more I could say on this topic, but others have said it better.  Dr. Alex Malpass engages presuppositionalism extensively (both the stupid versions and the more nuanced versions) on his blog UseOfReason.  It is a treasure trove, so please check it out.  There is also an excellent paper by Daniel Linford and Jennifer Benjamin called “On Knowledge Without God: Van Tillian Presuppositionalism and Divine Deception” arguing that Van Tillian presuppositionalism can’t actually ground epistemic security despite their claims to the contrary.  Check that out as well.

  1. Alex Malpass, The Problem With TAG
  2. Daniel Hill & Randal Rauser, Christian Philosophy A-Z, p. 157
  3. Defending Reason: A Response to Presuppositionalism
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid

 

 

What’s Wrong With Agnosticism?

Recently it came to my attention that Christian apologist Mike Winger made some comments about agnosticism in a recent Q&A, and I thought it would be interesting to interact with some of his remarks. I am, after all, a former Christian who considers himself to be one!  To be fair to Mike, these statements were made off-the-cuff, and it’s possible that they don’t reflect the fullness of his views on the subject.  He may even be open to modifying his thinking, so I don’t feel the need to round up my fellow agnostics and grab the pitchforks at this point.  Well, what is agnosticism anyway? According to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, agnosticism is:

The view that some proposition is not known and perhaps cannot be known to be true or false. The term is particularly applied to theological doctrines [1].

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy also gives the psychological sense of the term:

An agnostic is a person who has entertained the proposition that there is a God but believes neither that it is true nor that it is false [2]

Let’s compare these definitions with Mike’s understanding of agnosticism.  First, he claims that “agnosticism isn’t really a view” [3].  As should be obvious by the sources I have provided, this statement is sloppy – agnosticism is most certainly “a view”.  But how does he define it?  To Mike, agnosticism just means “I don’t know” or that “we can’t know the truth” [4].  We are getting much warmer with this, as answering “I don’t know” to questions about the existence of God reflects the psychological sense of the word as defined above, and claims like “we can’t know whether God exists” are made by hard agnostics.  Additionally, instead of claiming that “we can’t know”, some agnostics might say that we don’t know right now – meaning that it seems to them that at this point in human history the evidence is too ambiguous to make a judgement about God’s existence either way, but the situation might change as we learn more about the universe.  

Now that we have defined terms, what is the issue with agnosticism according to Mike?  For him, agnosticism is problematic because it “never settle[s] on a view” and is “inevitably rejecting truth”, whether that truth turns out to be atheism or theism [5].  For this reason, it “doesn’t seem to be a wise place to be for any length of time” [6].  Allow me to make a few observations of my own at this point: First, agnosticism is often a period of transition for many people who are planning to settle on a view.  I’m sure Mike would agree with this.  The difference between us as it relates to this point is that I don’t think someone in this situation needs to feel rushed because they are “rejecting truth”.  To me, making a decision about these kinds of things too quickly seems more unwise than weighing the evidence for a little too long.  Rushing a major worldview decision seems analogous to building a tower that you don’t have the resources to finish – perhaps choosing a view to ease the feeling of uncertainty only to be overwhelmed with doubt later.  Second, we don’t really choose our beliefs.  Christian theologian Randal Rauser has a few helpful things to say about this:

Do we choose our beliefs, or do we choose our doubts?  Can we go through our day and ask a question like “hmmm…what should I believe today, or what should I doubt today?”  On the contrary, we don’t exercise that kind of direct control over our beliefs and our doubts.  I can’t change my beliefs in the way I can will to move my arm.  I find myself with my beliefs, and I may find myself with certain doubts [7].

These observations are very applicable to this discussion, as an agnostic may simply find themselves with the belief that the total weight of evidence doesn’t warrant embracing either theism or atheism – and this may still be true for them even after extensively engaging with the arguments.  Even if an agnostic agreed with Mike and was eager to choose a side, it doesn’t follow that they can will themselves to weigh the evidence differently than they in fact do.  Finally, there is nothing wrong with suspending judgement in certain situations.  As philosopher Paul Draper explains:

We frequently find ourselves unable to make an overall judgement about the probability of an hypothesis because we are unable to determine whether the (clear) evidence for it is stronger than the (clear) evidence against it.  This may occur when trying to decide whether a suspect is guilty of a crime, or when wondering who will win a football game, especially early in the season.  In such circumstances, one must suspend judgement, not because one lacks clear evidence nor because one believes the evidence on each side is perfectly balanced.  Rather, one must suspend judgement because it is not clear which side, if any, is supported by the stronger evidence [8].

I’m sure some of Mike’s concern with all of this is that he wants people to do the hard mental labor of thinking through the arguments rather than choosing to coast, comfortable in their own position.  On this we can agree.  But even so, it seems to me that Draper is onto something – for the person who is interested in evaluating the arguments, there isn’t anything wrong with withholding judgement if it seems to them that neither side is supported by stronger evidence.

 

References

  1. Randal Rauser, Peter Boghossian’s Manual For Wasting Paper (Part 6): Defining Agnosticism
  2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Atheism And Agnosticism
  3. Mike Winger, Non-Christians Ask Me Questions.  The discussion begins at the 21:10 mark
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Randal Rauser, Should We Be Certain Of Our Beliefs?  Or Should We Doubt?
  8. Paul Draper, “Seeking But Not Believing: Confessions Of A Practicing Agnostic”, In Daniel Howard-Snyder & Paul K. Moser (eds.), Divine Hiddenness: New Essays.  p. 197-214

 

On Trying To Have Your Cake And Eat It Too: Abortion And Biblical Violence

Yesterday I came across a pretty straightforward argument against abortion by apologist Erik Manning:

 

 

Such an argument is simple enough, though obviously not all will accept it.  So what’s the problem?  Well, nothing as far as it goes.  However since the person making it appears to be a biblical literalist, it took concerted effort for me to keep my eyes from rolling back into my head.  Perhaps that is a bit of an overstatement, but it should be patently obvious that it would be extremely problematic for biblical literalists to accept the argument as stated.  Let’s take 1 Samuel 15 as a test case – there God is depicted as commanding the total destruction of the Amalekites, which specifically includes infants and all the women (some of whom were no doubt pregnant).  The irony here is that Erik’s own argument against abortion should function as a defeater for his conservative reading of the Old Testament.  Consider:

P1: It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being

P2: Stabbing an infant or pregnant woman to death intentionally kills an innocent human being

C: Therefore, stabbing an infant or pregnant woman to death is wrong

How might he get out of this?  There would be a few options at this point, but all of them would significantly change the way his original argument is worded.  Perhaps he might say that the infants in 1 Samuel 15 weren’t innocent.  Fine.  But he would then need to explain his theory of infant culpability and give reasons to think that babies are, per his argument, innocent now when they weren’t then.  Or maybe he could say that the Amalekite babies were innocent, but it’s morally permissible to kill innocent babies if God tells you to. Ok.  But that means that he doesn’t actually accept premise one of his own argument because there are exceptions.  Given these options, a more accurate version of premise one should be:

It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being unless God tell’s you it’s ok

Or

It is wrong to intentionally kill a human being unless God tells you it’s ok (if he wants to take out the word “innocent”)

But this doesn’t have the same rhetorical effect does it?

 

 

“I Feel God in this Chili’s Tonight”; Or, Why We Should be Skeptical of Religious Experience

Religious experience is an important aspect in the life of faith for many people.  Individuals from every religion make claims regarding what they take “to involve an encounter with a transcendent divine reality”, and it often fills adherents with confidence that the contents of their beliefs are true [1].  There are two questions that arise from this state of affairs:

  1. Can such experiences ground a person’s religious convictions with incorrigible certainty?
  2. If they can’t establish this level of certainty, how much weight should a person grant them?

I will be limiting my post to a discussion of why the answer to question one is no, though there are other resources available if one wanted to know how I think we should answer question two [2].  Taking the opposite position, many believers indicate that the answer to question one is yes.  Consider the following statement from one Christian apologist:

The way that I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart.  And this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence.  And therefore if in some historically contingent circumstances the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I don’t think that that controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit [3]. (Emphasis mine)

It is my contention that this kind of certainty in religious matters is a pipe dream, and completely misguided.  Most often this sort of approach is seen in the more fundamentalist expressions of any particular faith, so I will be abbreviating it as FC (Fundamentalist Certainty).  And without further ado, here are 5 reasons to be skeptical of FC:

1) FC is Immune to Evidence

Suppose we ask someone with FC “what type of evidence would it take for you to abandon your faith?”  The only consistent answer such a person could give is that no evidence could do so.  If someone unapologetically states that they know their religion to be true “wholly apart from evidence”, and that even if the available evidence were to turn against their faith they would still believe, there isn’t much you can do for them.  This way of thinking has no “built-in corrective mechanism”, and these kinds of claims “have no way to be corrected, altered, revised, or modified” [4].  Someone with FC in their particular religion need only continuously reassure themselves that there is a satisfactory answer to every objection even if they can’t find one, and – Tada! – their beliefs are immune to evidence [5].

2) FC is Inherently Subjective 

Most of the time people who take such a hard stance in favor of their own religious experience tend to view the experiences of those in other religions or sects very unfavorably.  But here is the problem – given the subjective nature of religious experience, how can proponents of FC tell that their own experiences are real rather than delusive [6]?  Since they are stuck in their own subjectivity, how can they tell the difference between real experiences brought about by their god, and false experiences brought about by a combination of religious upbringing, social pressure, traditions, and emotion [7]?  How can they possibly know that their experience of certainty and relationship with the divine is any different or more certain than anyone else’s?  What criteria would they use? [8].  There would be no way to establish any of this with certainty, as it is all completely subjective.

3) Religious Diversity Poses a Huge Problem for FC

It is an indisputable fact that people from every religion and sect have experiences that they take to confirm the contents of their belief systems.  Some of these experiences may be dramatic, while others may be of the more subtle and day-to-day variety.  Why is this an issue?  Well, they can’t all be right.  “If powerful experiences full of apparent meaningfulness and illumination may come to persons of intelligence and virtue and yet be completely delusive”, then why are proponents of FC so sure that this doesn’t apply to their own experiences [9]?  Consider the following analogy [10]:  Suppose that I am wearing an electronic helmet that causes me to hallucinate pieces of fruit.  Imagine that as I am walking through my home admiring the fake fruit, I come across what appears to be an orange on my kitchen table.

As it so happens, this is a real orange that my wife placed there minutes before, and my senses are functioning properly in this case.  Given the background conditions, it seems obvious that even though the orange is real in this case, I should still be highly skeptical that I am perceiving an actual orange.  In the same way, “if I have good evidence that many religious experiences are delusional – even the most compelling examples – then surely I should be equally skeptical about my own religious experiences, no matter how compelling they might be” [11].  The problem of religious diversity (at a minimum) forces us to drink the powdered remains of our golden calf of certainty.

4) People are Biased

Have you met people?  We kind of suck.  We tend to:

  • Be overconfident in our own experiences and ability
  • Dislike uncertainty – preferring to have answers sooner rather than later
  • Become dogmatic about deeply held beliefs – frequently unable to see where we might be wrong
  • Show fierce loyalty to ideas and communities that we form deep emotional attachments to [12]

Though many of these traits mentioned so far can cause problems when trying to get to the truth in any sphere, they are especially problematic when the beliefs in question cannot be falsified.  There is nothing to stop these traits from running their course if a person relies on religious experience as their foundation for belief.

5) Religious Experience Can be Accounted for Without Supernatural Assumptions

If one looks out at the religious landscape, they will see that experiences tend to be specific to culture – Muslims perceive the presence of Allah and Christians perceive the presence of Jesus.  Not surprisingly, national borders are a pretty accurate indication of what types of religious experiences people are having.  Predominantly Muslim countries aren’t seeing the Virgin Mary, but over the border in Catholic countries they are.  Even alien abduction stories are pretty much limited to certain places.  “This strongly suggests that to a significant degree, religious experiences are shaped by our cultural expectations – by the power of suggestion…And once we know that a large part of what is experienced is a result of the power of suggestion, we immediately have grounds for being somewhat suspicious about what remains” [13].  

Additionally, religious practice often includes features such as meditation and prayer, isolation, fasting, collective singing/chanting, grand architecture, giving, and ritual – “activities we know can have a powerful psychological effect even outside any religious setting” [14].  This goes to show that a person may engage in these practices thinking that they are making contact with a transcendent reality when in fact “they have succeeded in altering their own psychology by fairly well-understood mechanisms common to both the religious and nonreligious spheres” [15].  Now don’t get me wrong – these observations don’t prove that nothing supernatural is going on in any religion, but they do undermine the dogmatic confidence required by those who embrace FC.  As J.L. Mackie put it: “Since these experiences are of kinds which are psychologically understandable without the help of any specifically religious assumptions, they do not in themselves carry any guarantee of a supernatural source” [16].

Concluding Thoughts

My goal thus far has been to demonstrate that FC is an untenable approach to religious belief and experience, and that the certainty promised is just plain impossible.  What are the practical implications of this?  For starters, the falsity of FC only entails that religious experience cannot ground incorrigible certainty, not that it can’t be counted as evidence.  Whether religious experience is any good as a piece of evidence is a completely separate debate, and for a paper I like on that topic see the references.  Another implication is that any religious system that depends on FC for its survival is false (an example of this would include Christian systems that depend on conservative readings of Romans 1).  Sorry Calvinists!

 

 

References

  1. Daniel Hill and Randal Rauser, Christian Philosophy A-Z, p. 59
  2. Stephen Law, The X-Claim Argument Against Religious Belief (Pre-publication Draft).  I highly recommend everyone give this paper a read as it deals with standard objections that believers use to defend religious experience against common attacks
  3. Randal Rauser, Dealing with Doubt?  On William Lane Craig’s Rather Bad Advice
  4. Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists, p. 16
  5. Randal Rauser, Dealing with Doubt?  On William Lane Craig’s Rather Bad Advice
  6. Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists, p. 70
  7. A.C. Grayling, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, p. 13
  8. J.L. Schellenberg, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, p. 163-165; 182-183
  9. Ibid, p. 165-176
  10. Stephen Law, Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole, p. 148-150.  This analogy borrows many of the elements from Law’s but isn’t identical
  11. Ibid, p. 150
  12. J.L. Schellenberg, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, p. 72-81
  13. Stephen Law, Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole, p. 150-151.  This quote and everything in this section preceding it is a summary of what Law has written
  14. Ibid, p. 154
  15. Ibid, p. 156
  16. J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and Against the Existence of God, Location 2585 (Kindle)