Saturday, December 18, 2010

Is religion reasonable?

Ken comments on my recent post, The infantilism of religion. He is at least articulate and seems sincere, so I'll address his points here. It is, of course, a comment on a blog post, so I don't expect him to fully substantiate all his assertions, but his errors are so egregious that we have little reason to take him at all seriously.

His comment contains what appears to be a curious and subtle contradiction. On the one hand, he is emphatic that taking into account "verifiable historical facts, reason points to the truth of Christianity." On the other hand, he equates reason with "unreasonable" religious faith:
Science is based not just on reason but also faith. We call them assumptions and “standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Ken immediately undermines his argument by adding,
You can object to this statement by observing that this type of faith is verifiable (it is). However, the Christian faith is also verifiable (being also based on fact), both historically (as much as any other historical facts are verifiable) and experientially,.
Ken appears to be conflating two different concepts: belief and disbelief that any God, especially the Christian god, actually exists, and the methodology by which people actually come to various beliefs, religious and scientific.

It is — or should be — common knowledge that there is an enormous tendency in religious believers to differentiate faith from skeptical, scientific reasoning. This is true whether or not it is possible to come to the Christian faith by skeptical scientific reasoning. Theologians of every religion sometimes attempt to obfuscate this difference, as Ken does, but there are substantive methodological differences between faith and reason. Ken does not delve deeply into these differences (noting only that scientific reasoning depends in some sense on verifiable facts, possibly implying that there is some "faith" methodology that does depends on something other than verifiable facts), so I'll leave this point for another day.

Instead, I'll focus on Ken's assertion that "the Christian faith is also verifiable (being also based on fact), both historically (as much as any other historical facts are verifiable) and experientially,." He first asserts that "atheists like Civil War general Lew Wallace and, more recently, journalist Lee Strobel, who both tried to once-and-for-all prove that Christianity was a myth or a fraud, were led to the same unexpected conclusion." I don't know anything at all about Lew Wallace except what I read on Wikipedia. The General Lew Wallace Study and Museum mentions only that Wallace's novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (later made into the iconic 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston) was prompted by a conversation with noted atheist/agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll. In the article on the novel, Wikipedia cites the introduction to Ben-Hur, 2009, by Russell W. Dalton, reporting,
Wallace often told the story of meeting the well-known agnostic Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll on a train in 1875. For many hours, Ingersoll questioned Wallace about God, heaven and the story of Christ. Wallace said he came away realizing how little he knew about his own religion: “I was ashamed of myself, and make haste now to declare that the mortification of pride I then endured . . . ended in a resolution to study the whole matter.” In writing the story, he was able to sort out his own beliefs about God and Christ.
Furthermore, a superficial Google search reveals that reports of Wallace's "atheis" show primarily on Christian-themed sites. I'm not an historian, and I don't care to investigate the matter personally, but it appears at first glance that Ken is deeply mistaken on this point.

I know a little bit more about Lee Strobel, which further substantiates my conclusion that Ken is not relying on a scientific study of the facts to substantiate his Christian beliefs. There is a huge body of work at The Secular Web Library concerning Strobel, which finds him tendentious, one-sided, and skeptically incompetent. For example, Jeffery J. Lowder reports that:
Strobel did not interview any critics of Christian apologetics, even though he attacks such individuals in his book [The Case for Christ]. For example, Strobel devotes an entire chapter to his interview of Greg Boyd (an outspoken faultfinder of the Jesus Seminar), yet Strobel never interviewed a single member of the Jesus Seminar itself! Likewise, he repeatedly criticizes Michael Martin, author of [The] Case Against Christianity, but he never bothered to get Martin's responses to those attacks. This hardly constitutes balanced reporting on Strobel's part; indeed, on this basis, one is tempted to dismiss the entire book.
Paul Doland notes that Strobel corrects this deficiency (at least somewhat) in The Case for Faith, saying, "Strobel's first interview is with Charles Templeton, a former minister who is now an agnostic and has left the ministry." But Doland goes on to note that
Strobel interviews one skeptic, in the beginning of the book, and interviews eight believers to answer Templeton's questions. Essentially, eight believers are given the opportunity to rebut Templeton's questions, but no skeptic is allowed to rebut the believers." These are not in the least bit the actions of someone trying "to once-and-for-all prove that Christianity was a myth or a fraud.
Again, Ken seems very deeply mistaken about matters of verifiable fact.

Ken goes on to mention that,
I applied Occam's Razor: start with the simplest and most reasonable of assumptions. Starting with the assumption that the writers of the Bible were sincere (not even necessarily right), and they must have been sincere to have been willing to die for what they believed, and combining this with verifiable historical facts, reason points to the truth of Christianity.
First, Ken does not understand Occam's Razor, which has nothing to do with what assumptions you start with, and everything to do with how you evaluate competing hypotheses that fit the facts: "The Razor generally recommends selecting the competing hypothesis that makes the fewest new assumptions (also known as postulates, entities) when the hypotheses be equal in other respects." Why should we assume authors of the Bible were sincere? That's certainly one hypothesis, perhaps the most plausible prima facie, but Occam's Razor explicitly does not entail that we accept one hypothesis or another a priori. And what does "sincere" mean in this context? For example, the authors of the Bible (especially the Gospels) might have been explicitly intending to write some form of fiction; but we do not typically accuse writers of fiction of insincerity. They also might have "sincerely" believed that revelation was just as much a source of accurate fact as direct, physical observation.

More importantly, as Dagood has researched, the conclusion that the disciples died for their beliefs is not supported by the historical or biblical record. As he notes in this comment,
In order for “Die for a Lie” to work, one must show:

1) The witness saw a physical Jesus post-resurrection (not a vision);
2) The witness had an opportunity to recant to avoid death.
He goes on to claim:
Not sure how Paul helps you (regardless), since he never claimed (nor does Acts) to have seen a physical Jesus, but rather relies upon a vision. Even if he did die for belief—it was belief in a vision, not necessarily a physically resurrected person, thus the first objection remains robust as to Paul.

Not to mention, of course, our first indication of Paul’s death is 1 Clement, which does not mention how he died, and also indicates Paul continued to Spain, giving us a difficult chronology to coordinate with the New Testament. (And we should note the question regarding the dating of 1 Clement.) The beheading of Paul is not recounted until the Acts of Paul, written 150-200 CE—a work Tertullian claims was a forgery, yet [Tertullian] curiously lifts the story regarding Paul’s martyrdom from it.
He also mentions James, noting that
As for James’ death in Josephus, he is recorded as being a pious Jew, and killed for political reasons. There is absolutely nothing in there about his being killed for any belief whatsoever, let alone a belief in the resurrection.

Dagood writes more extensively on Peter's death, noting that there are only "three documents, dated around 100 C.E.," the Gospel of John, the (noncanonical) Gospel of Peter, and 1 Clement, which are "all in agreement Peter is dead, [but] none telling any details beyond that brute fact." Dagood concludes (from other evidence) that all we know is that "Peter died because he was convincing wives not to have sex with their husbands which made the husbands mad, so he ran away; but then he ran into Jesus who was on His way to be crucified again in Rome, so Peter offered to take His place, insisting on being crucified upside down because that is how Cain was born."

From Ken's numerous errors and obviously superficial investigation, we can conclude that he is not relying on "verifiable historical fact." More importantly he does not appear to understand Feynman's fundamental premise of skepticism, that we should bend over backward to not fool ourselves. Indeed, Ken is making the same mistake that so-called "rational" believers make: cherry-pick some evidence that supports their belief, ignore everything else, cast a little doubt on rationality and skepticism itself, and declare victory. This is not skepticism, nor is it even honest faith: It is dishonest to the core.

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