In this installment of our ongoing review of Loftus, ed., The End of Christianity we turn to an evaluation of chapter 3 which is an essay by John W. Loftus titled “Christianity is wildly improbable”.
The essay begins with John’s characteristic Braveheart-styled bravado:
“When it comes to Christianity, two thousand years are enough. It’s time this ancient myth was put to rest.” (75)
Okay, and how exacty will that be done? John makes a bold promise:
“In this chapter I”ll use a smorgasbord of arguments to show that Christianity, especially Protestant Evangelicalism, is wildly improbable. Evangelical Christian beliefs are so wildly improbable to me that they are ridiculous, preposterous, absurd and bizarre.” (76)
So John finds Christianity ridiculous, preposterous, absurd and bizarre (henceforth: RPAB) Ouch. Well at least he didn’t claim that it is crazy, outlandish, utterly implausible, and nuts-o.
But why does John find Christianity RPAB? John then lists “ten [Christian] creedal affirmations” (76-77) which cumulatively make Christianity look (to John anyway) as RPAB. Let’s consider a partial sampling of these “creedal affirmations”:
1) There exists an eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing creator God, who, though of one essence, exists as three distinct, but not separate, persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
3) The earth is not billions of years in age, but created by God six to ten thousand years ago.
Wait a minute. I don’t remember reading 3) in John Leith’s Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed. (Westminster John Knox, 1982). Apparently John considers not only creedal affirmations but also non-creedal popular conservative Christian beliefs. But if he is including the latter then why not add the following to his list?
a) Good Christian girls don’t drink, smoke or chew or go with boys who do.
b) The GOP is God’s chosen political vessel for actualizing his will in the United States and the world.
Anyway, I digress. Let’s get back on track by considering our final two samples from John’s ignominious list of incredulity:
6) A first-century Galilean Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, was born of a virgin as an incarnate God in the flesh and performed numerous miracles during his life, including walking on water, turning water into wine, and feeding thousands with a small serving of bread and fish.
9) A collection of sixty-six ancient texts, composed by numerous persons, nearly all unknown, over a period of over a thousand years, in their original versions, contained no inconsistencies, absurdities, or errors of fact or morality.
John believes these ten beliefs are hopelessly RPAB. (Grammatically ought one say they’re rpabic? Or perhaps rpabish?) John then concludes:
“Any professing Christian who literally believes more than five of them has a wildly improbable faith (and that’s being very generous). And any professing Christian who literally believes them all has an incredibly bizarre faith.” (77)
That sentence is a good illustration of the degree to which John’s argument depends on us sharing his personal incredulity. Given that John is so dependent upon personal incredulity he could easily make those two sentences more forceful by ratcheting up the level of personal incredulity conveyed. Boldfaced and italicized font would be effective intensifiers:
“Any professing Christian who literally believes more than five of them has a wildly improbable faith (and that’s being very generous). And any professing Christian who literally believes them all has an incredibly bizarre faith.”
Even better, John could also resort to the use of all-caps:
“Any professing Christian who literally believes more than five of them has a WILDLY IMPROBABLE FAITH (and that’s being VERY generous). And any professing Christian who literally believes them all has an INCREDIBLY BIZARRE FAITH.”
And for the coup de grace John could add exclamation points (at least two per sentence) and a parting, sardonic snort of condescending mirth:
“Any professing Christian who literally believes more than five of them has a WILDLY IMPROBABLE FAITH (and that’s being VERY generous)!! And any professing Christian who literally believes them all has an INCREDIBLY BIZARRE FAITH!! HAH!!“
Unfortunately this method does have a downside: it is ineffectual at persuading anybody who does not already accept the prior probability assessments. Consequently, it is like trying to persuade a metalhead that Toby Keith is good music by turning up the volume every time he complains about the country twang. If one doesn’t already accept John’s initial claim that the truth claims of Christianity are improbable then adding “wildly”, “incredibly bizarre” and even italics, boldface, caps, exclamation points and sardonic laughter does nothing to make the reader more likely to accept John’s claim. What John needs to do instead is provide that person with a reason to think their Christian commitments are improbable (wildly so or otherwise).
Ordinary and extraordinary according to John
Fortunately John does attempt to root his personal incredulity in something more than his own tortured psychology. His purported objective ground for personal incredulity lies in a distinction between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” with incredulity extended only to beliefs that are of the latter category.
(A) “An extraordinary claim is a claim about an alleged event considered improbable because it’s outside the realm of the ordinary, something we wouldn’t expect to happen.” (81)
At this point we must identify a regrettable error in the above cited definition because it extends only to claims about events. But go back to the list John provides of ten RPAB Christian beliefs and look at the very first one, cited above. It concerns not an event but rather a state of affairs, namely the claim that God (defined in a certain way) exists. Yet John clearly considers (1) implausible which means he intended to include states of affairs as well. This prompts me to offer a friendly addendum to his definition:
(B) “An extraordinary claim is a claim about an alleged event considered improbable because it’s outside the realm of the ordinary, something we wouldn’t expect to happen, or about an alleged state of affairs considered improbable because we would not expect it to be the case.”
While this is a better definition than John provides, it is also rather long-winded. With that in mind I offer two additional (more concise) ways John might want to define the “extraordinary” which seem to be consistent with his views:
(C) “An extraordinary claim is one that we would expect to be false because it diverges very far from common experience.”
(D) “An extraordinary claim is one that we would consider statistically to be very likely false.”
Personally I think either (C) or (D) is better than (B). But so long as we’re clear that we cannot go with (A) we should be okay.
The case of the surprising neighbor
Let’s begin to assess John’s ten RPAB Christian beliefs by considering another situation which concerns descriptions of Charles’ new neighbor. Without knowing anything of Charles’ neighbor what do you think the likelihood would be that the following claims about that neighbor are true?
(1) The neighbor is a Swede named Mario.
(2) Mario was born “Maria”, if you get my drift.
(3) Mario is a retro-gamer who holds the first highest official score at Galaga.
(4) Mario lived at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica for three months.
(5) Mario has an unrestored 1966 Mustang with a 351 Windsor in storage.
A transsexual Swede named Mario? Are you kidding? This definitely is a highly improbable state of affairs! And that doesn’t even get into (3)-(5).
But what if, when you ask Charles to describe his new neighbor, he lists off (1)-(5)? Do you balk and pull out a napkin so you can explain the enormous statistical improbability of (1)-(5) being true? Of course not. Assuming you have no defeaters to the general reliability of Charles’ testimony you toss your prior probabilities out the window because actuality trumps probability.
Actuality trumps probability
The problem with John’s reasoning can be illustrated by an insurance commercial (which, alas, I failed to find on youtube). The commercial features two insurance agents standing on a busy street corner doing risk assessments based on the statistical probability of various events playing out. As the scenes of a busy city play out around them they say things like this:
“There is a two percent chance that that guy will stumble on the curb and spill his coffee.”
“Well there is a .5 percent chance that that car will hit the pothole and lose a hubcap.”
Then one of them asks something like this: “What is the chance of a guy riding by on an ostrich?” A moment later a man in a business suite rides by on an ostrich after which the other guy turns and, in a perfect deadpan delivery, answers the question: “One. Now.”
A probability of one. Now. In other words, the probability of a particular claim or set of claims being true might be enormously improbable until it occurs. But once it does occur its probability leaps to 1 (or 100 %). Once again, actuality trumps probability.
From the perspective of a Christian John is like that analyst calculating the enormous implausibility of the ostrich riding man before the fact. But the Christian is like the man who has just witnessed the otherwise unexpected event. Once a person believes an event has occurred approximate calculations of the probability of the event are no longer relevant.
You know what this means, don’t you? John still has nothing driving his essay but his own personal incredulity.
A new set of criteria for ordinary/extraordinary
John attempts to further his case by posing a “Greater Extraordinary Claims Scale” which purports to chart a scale from ordinary claims to downright extraordinary ones. The chart goes like this:
[Most ordinary] Atheist/ Pantheist / Deist / Jew / Muslim / Christian [Most extraordinary]
So atheists have the most ordinary set of beliefs while Christians have the most extraordinary set (with conservative Christians being the most extraordinary of the extraordinary). John explains:
“On the left side is the atheist (or agnostic) who makes no extraordinary claims about supernatural beings or forces at all.” (82)
Wait a minute. John quietly changed his criterion for distinguishing ordinary and extraordinary claims. His criterion is no longer that which is outside of common human experience simpliciter. Rather, he is now identifying as extraordinary claims about “supernatural beings or forces”. Surely John must be aware of the enormous difficulties in defining “natural” over-against “supernatural”. (This problem is well illustrated in the philosophical consensus that attempts to define naturalism as a coherent and defensible set of claims about the world have failed.) But rather than focus on that enormous topic, I’ll engage John’s scale in two other ways.
To begin with, let’s consider his assessment of pantheism as being almost as plausible as atheism. Consider that God is by definition, a supernatural being. But if extraordinary claims are those which appeal to supernatural beings (or forces) then wouldn’t it follow that a view which says everything that exists is a supernatural being is maximally extraordinary?
Atheism or naturalism?
The quibble about the placement of pantheism is merely the opening act however. Now let’s turn to the main event: John’s treatment of “atheism”.
Those of us who were raised on “Sesame Street” will recall the segment “One of these things is not like the other”. In the segment you might have three red things and one blue thing and the viewer (typically 3-6 years old) would have to pick out which thing does not belong (the blue one!).
John’s credibility continuum is like this. One thing doesn’t belong in the following list: Atheist/ Pantheist / Deist / Jew / Muslim / Christian. The thing that doesn’t belong is “atheist”. You see, an atheist is simply a person who affirms the proposition “God does not exist”. This contrasts markedly with each of these other positions which offer not a single affirmation or denial of God’s existsence, but rather a much more robust set of interrelated claims about the nature of existence. (Deism, for example, claims that God is metaphysically distinct from the world and that he created it but is not involved in it. Moreover, deism denies the existence of special revelation and affirms a divinely given moral law.) To compare atheism to pantheism, deism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity is akin to comparing an automotive chassis to a Ford, a Chevy, a Hyundai, a Volkswagen and a Honda. Atheism doesn’t belong.
So what then is the “atheistic alternative” to these different views? It is a position known as naturalism. As I noted above, we will not be considering the difficulties with defining naturalism here. Rather we will limit ourselves to a consideration of the equivalent list of “creedal statements” for the typical naturalist.
So what does a typical naturalist believe? Let’s consider five typical beliefs that are widely held by naturalists:
1) The universe came into existence uncaused out of nothing.
2) The information in the DNA double helix was generated through undirected, non-intelligent processes.
3) Consciousness is supervenient on the brain and as a result our minds are not causually effectual in the world.
4) Morality is a social construction.
5) There is no meaning to life even if people can identify meanings in life.
What is the likelihood of a universe springing into existence uncaused out of nothing? What is the likelihood of DNA arising through undirected natural processes? What is the likelihood of 1) multiplied by 2)? Who could possibly believe something so implausible?
The naturalist of course finds recourse to the actuality trumps probability principle. They believe DNA has, in fact, been generated by natural processes so as statistically unlikely as this may be they accept it. Naturalists have also often appealed to actuality trumps probability as an explanation for the enormous implausiblity of a universe leaping into existence uncaused.
I don’t think these are legitimate appeals to the actuality trumps probability principle. But that is not my concern here. Rather, my concern is that John Loftus’s self-serving continuum masks the enormous implausiblity of his own view by substituting atheism — a mere chassis — for a fully developed naturalist automobile.
John’s hypocrisy part 1
John Loftus is well known for peppering his criticisms of Christianity with distracting invective and he does not disappoint (or, more accurately, once again he does disappoint). Consider the following example:
“Now we have a Trinity who will forever exist with an embodied human being attached to the Logos, the human side of Jesus. If conceiving the Trinity isn’t hard enough to swallow, picture that three-headed monster with a human head attached to one part of it!” (89, emphasis in original)
Consider for a moment the enormous hypocrisy in this. John would no doubt be outraged by a Christian fundamentalist who snidely dismisses Neo-Darwinian evolution with the quip “I’m not gonna let no evolutionist make a monkey outta me!” But instead of rising above that schoolyard invective, once again John descends into the quagmire. I hope he grows up soon.
Incidentally a reader at the Christian Post named unkleE responded to my earlier critique of John by making the following comment about John’s method:
“There is an old joke about a preacher whose speaking notes included: ‘Point weak here – shout a bit louder.'” The point is sadly apposite for this essay as well.”
Sadly apposite indeed.
John’s hypocrisy part 2
As if one glaring example of hypocrisy were not enough, I cannot help note one more. Over the years John must have declared hundreds of times that Christians should not talk merely about what is possible but what is probable. Here’s a typical example:
But now consider how he reacts to purported miracle claims in the essay under review:
“What believers must show is that an alleged biblical miracle could not have happened within the natural world because it was impossible (or else it’s not considered miraculous).” (102)
Really? How about I take John’s first statement and turn it back on his dismissal of miracles:
“I’ve heard it all. And it disgusts me. Atheists demand that I must show a natural explanation of a miracle claim is impossible before they will see that it is improbable. This is an utterly unreasonable demand.”
Looks to me like hypocrite is spelled “J-O-H-N L-O-F-T-U-S”.
At the beginning of his chapter John promised “a smorgasbord of arguments”. I stopped eating at smorgasbords a long time ago (except for the occasional luxury hotel) because inevitably you get a large variety of insipid food: cheap buns, warmed over macaroni salad, limp pizza and mushy mashed potates topped off with the choice of bland lime jello or dried out chocolate cake.
Unfortunately, John made good on his promise of a “smorgasbord of arguments”. Food, food everywhere, but nothing good to eat.