Thoughts on Christianity (part 2)

I left the last post of this series as a committed, yet indifferent, non-believer – indifferent in the sense that I recognised that both factually and morally, Christianity had nothing to offer me. Yet both facts and morals are inescapably features of the world, so something is true even if something else is believed.

As school students we were encouraged, commanded even, to accept as truth things which were obviously missing from our experience or conceptually dubious. The only thing one can say for sure about God is that he never shows up. People say he does, of course, and attribute all sorts of things to his presence, but all these things have other, more plausible, explanations. Of course we’re told that if we only believe in his existence and his function as a pre-requisite, then we will somehow understand it all in that light. It’s hard to think where to begin with this nonsense, save to say that if it was anything else that we were considering, then we would dismiss it with no more than a belly laugh. No test for God outside the subjective exists, and therefore there is no convincing or plausible evidence for the existence of such a thing. Theology – otherwise known as worthless drivel – and apologetics – otherwise known as dishonest dissembling – have for centuries duly engaged the minds of some of the smartest of scholars as well as some of the most gullible or most devious or most dumb.

Theology is quite a wide discipline, and has many strands. For that reason it’s quite difficult to pigeon-hole. But its most basic definition remains that enunciated by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th Century –  fides quaerens intellectumwhich literally means “faith seeking understanding”. Theological students of Anselm and his arguments would no doubt argue that this is grossly oversimplified. But Anselm’s arguments are no more convincing then Young-Earth Creationism, and the idea of theology as faith seeking understanding shows just how fundamentally intellectually vacuous it all is. Whereas the starting points for intellectual enquiries in any other disciplines are hypotheses based on factual evidence, leading to testing to confirm or deny their correctness, theology turns this notion completely on its head. The starting point here is an acceptance of, at best, incredibly weak evidence, followed by the attempts either to make these beliefs appear rational or intelligible in the light of real-world evidence or dispense with reason and intelligibility altogether. “Faith” in itself is also held to be a virtuous activity, but theologically-speaking, is no more than an attempt to dress up prior beliefs, many of which are incoherent and/or based in superstition, in a pseudo-intellectual cloak of respectability. Theologians and their defenders would no doubt complain at this analysis – the usual argument is that critics of the place of theology as an academic pursuit haven’t taken the time to fully understand it. Richard Dawkins is often criticised for his lack of theological or philosophical training, as if that meant that he is no place to criticise. (See The Courtier’s Reply). But this argument of the theologians can be seen as nothing more than a mere smokescreen until any of them can demonstrate that theology is anything other than an attempt to make the facts fit the conclusion.

The problem with theology is that, as an attempt to understand a divine agency, its findings are all-too-human. The same applies to the other area of religious discourse, apologetics. But whereas theology at least gives lip-service to intellectual neutrality (unsuccessfully), apologetics doesn’t even do that. Literally, apologetics comprises a “defence” of the particular religion or ideology to which it is attached. Once again the conclusion is pre-determined. Once again, like theology, apologetics for its very existence depends on the non-appearance of God in real life. If there was no problem of divine hiddenness there would be no apologetics, and theology would be very a different subject.

It is only with theology and apologetics (and apologetics can easily be applied to some similar areas outside religion) that arguments for the existence of the subject can hold any sort of influence at all. We don’t see arguments for the existence of rocks as part of basic geology, or arguments for the existence of society as part and parcel of sociology. (Margaret Thatcher once famously claimed that there was no such thing as society, but her grasp of reality was never her strong point). There might be disagreement about what exactly constitutes a rock, or society, or life, but no sensible person would dispute that such things exist in the world. The evidence that rocks exist is the existence of rocks, and the evidence that God exists should be God. We don’t need to create reasons to believe in the existence of rocks so why would apologists need to create reasons for the existence of God, while at the same time, explaining why we can’t have the best reason of all? It is left to humans to create faith from whatever straws they can clutch, and a failure to convince is held to be a failure of apologetics, not a failure of the idea of God.

Consequently I think that apologetics rarely, if ever, effective against its ostensible targets, the non-believers. This is somewhat surprising as surveys among atheists reveal that divine hiddenness is the primary reason for their belief, while Christians are much more likely to cite moral reasons for their own views. (See comments here, for example). Its purpose is much more to bolster faith in those who already believe and are looking for arguments that support their own views, to point waverers back in a certain direction, and to dispel any cognitive dissonance that belief in the invisible and undetectable might generate. In other words, it’s more about belief in belief than belief in a deity, which, indeed, could be applied to theology just as well.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the apologists’ responses to the argument from divine hiddenness. In general, they don’t produce positive reasons against the argument, but shift the emphasis on to the character or motives of the non-believer. They have a ready-made Bible verse as “evidence”:

For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

Romans 1:20 (KJV)

God’s work is hardly obvious, even among believers. Is the world the work of Yahweh, Allah, Zodvord the Indefatigable or something else? Disagreement between and among religions is evidence against the Romans view. In short, anyone could say that, with neither fear of contradiction nor any substance. Additionally, modern physics and cosmology is more and more dispensing with the unknown such that no explanation of the universe requires an external cause.

The following quote from the FFF  is a typical Christian response.

P.S. Why do you hate God, or the concept of God? — I really am interested. If you are willing to answer but prefer to keep it private, please P.M. me.

This is a fine example of well-poisoning, added at the end of the post. Despite no supporting evidence, it’s alluded that the atheist that he was responding to is motivated by emotion, and moreover, feels guilty about it.

The poster earlier demands:

Scientifically prove there is no God. Your faith is that there is no God and neither of us can prove our position scientifically.

The “clearly seen” is hardly clearly seen. In fact the beauty of this type of argumentation, from the perspective of believers, is that it isn’t refutable by it’s very nature. But as positive arguments go, there is nothing there either. Personally, I’m unimpressed with “burden of proof” arguments of this nature because the proof, if there was such a thing, would be evident whoever was trying to establish it, and both the religious and the non-religious fall into this trap.

Having said that, proof is available depending on how the believer defines his God. Victor Stenger, a physics professor, has written various books on the subject and rightly makes the point that religious believers make claims that the supernatural God intervenes in the natural world, and therefore these claims are testable. To date, says Stenger, no evidence of such interference has come to light. Religious arguments therefore still depend on the clearly seen not being clearly seen, indistinguishable from their imaginations. Further support for this view comes from the fact that Christians themselves are split into many competing and mutually opposing factions – indeed on the FFF more bile was reserved for fellow-believers of different versions of Christianity than for non-believers. One would think that even if God deliberately didn’t appear to non-believers he would clearly articulate his wishes among his supporters, and put an end to any confusion. Instead, we are left with the thoughts and policies of man.

Even the most fervent Christian ought to admit that God’s presence could be something that required no inference. But, never mind, there’s always the “free-will” defence. This states that God’s preference is that people come to believe in him through their own free choice, rather than by force of direct evidence. This is an admission that the evidence isn’t really there, or at best the evidence comes as a result of subjective interpretation, and once again we are left with the same problem that belief is indistinguishable from the imagination. Besides, the Bible is remarkable for its stories detailing that, even in cases where God appeared directly (such as the story of Adam and Eve), people still used their free will to disobey him. It doesn’t say a lot for God’s supposed omnipotence, either, if someone like myself would be resistant to his charms.

Expecting someone like myself to accept evidence that doesn’t exist would be analogous to expecting me to fall for a Nigerian 419 scam – and I accept that people do do this, albeit that the rest of us pour scorn on their foolishness. Belief is an abandonment of reason, an acceptance that ordinary standards of rationality are insufficient when evaluating his existence. In such circumstances it is more reasonable not to believe.

For a laugh, see Conservapedia. I am undecided whether this site is the stupidest on the internet, or the cleverest parody. Oddly enough, divine hiddenness isn’t given as a reason, although there are many spurious ones. “Poor relationship with Father” gets trundled out again – and it got quite offensive when this was used against atheists on the FFF. Basically it could be turned on its head by suggesting that a good relationship with one’s father is an indication of gullibility, not that I’ve ever seen that argument used by non-believers, nor should it be.

I had intended, when beginning this post, to say something about naturalism v. supernaturalism, and about so-called “Christian culture”, but got sidetracked and ended up doing something completely different, as Monty Python might say. Nevertheless, I do recognise that despite any good reason, millions of people do believe – something which I doubted during my later school years. Hopefully my next post on this subject will look at this phenomenon.

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