Which is more wildly improbable: Christianity being true or Loftus coming up with a good argument?
Last year I wrote a critique of John Loftus’ essay “Christianity is Wildly Improbable” from the book The End of Christianity. In the essay John focuses on ”ten creedal affirmations” that many (evangelical) Christians accept. He purports to show that it is exceedingly unlikely that all these claims would be true from which it presumably follows that Christianity is likely false.
Summarizing my initial critique
On the first page of the essay John observes: “Evangelical Christian beliefs are so wildly improbable to me that they are ridiculous, preposterous, absurd and bizarre.” (76, emphasis added) It is a revealing statement. Essentially John’s essay never moves beyond a presentation of his own personal incredulity at how implausible Christian beliefs appear to him to be. But of course this personal incredulity is absolutely and utterly irrelevant for a Christian who already accepts that the beliefs in question are true. For this reason John’s essay is an unmitigated disaster as an example of anti-Christian atheological apologetics.
To try and illustrate how serious a misfire John’s argument is, consider the case of Dave. Dave has lived all his life in Anchorage Alaska and he truly loves the city. He loves the cold, the snow, the rain and overcast skies, the snowcapped peaks and the wildness of the land. But now Dave’s friend Mark is trying to persuade him to move with him to Waco, Texas. “Come on Dave,” Mark says, “You’ll love it!” “Oh really?” Dave retorts, “Well then convince me.” “Okay,” says Mark. “It’s blisteringly hot in Waco for much of the year. And it’s flat and sunny all the time, and you’re far from the ocean. But Anchorage is cold and snowy, rainy and overcast with snowcapped peaks and a wild land. So come on Dave, let’s move to Waco!”
Poor Mark. His apologetic works great for himself because he already prefers the heat to the cold, the plains to the mountains, the sun to the clouds. But his apologetic is utterly ineffectual for Dave since Dave prefers the exact opposites.
That is precisely John’s problem. He writes an essay purporting to offer an apologetic reason for Christians to give up their Christian beliefs. And instead all he did was write an essay expressing his personal incredulity toward Christian beliefs. But this is utterly irrelevant to those who already believe those claims are true just like Mark’s plea for Waco is irrelevant to those who prefer the cold, the mountains and the clouds.
This point can be summarized with the principle I stated, viz. that actuality trumps probability. In other words, if you already believe something is true then the fact that somebody believes it is unlikely to occur is not a reason to reject it.
Next, I pointed out that John never considers the enormous improbability of a set of claims for an atheistic worldview, including claims such as these:
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.
At least I recognize that you don’t offer a critique of atheistic naturalism simply by claiming that it is enormously improbable that this set of claims would happen to be true. Instead, you critique it by providing reasons to think that each of these claims is in fact false. And that’s exactly what John should have done as well. Rather than make blustery statements about the wild improbability of Christian claims based on his own personal incredulity, he should have presented the positive case to believe that each of these claims is in fact false.
Critically engaging John’s rejoinder
Now, after much prodding and thirteen months of time passed, John has finally offered a response to my critique which is not-so-creatively titled “Responding to Rauser On the Wildly Improbable Christian Faith.”
This is how John opens his essay: “Dr. Rauser fancies himself as a Christian intellectual who seeks to straighten the rest of us crooked people out. We’re bent out of shape, you see. He’s gonna fix us. ‘Cause we need fixed.” Sigh. This stuff reads like dialogue straight from the cheezy 1979 cult hit film “The Warriors.” And believe me, that isn’t a compliment.
Do things get any better in John’s rebuttal? You be the judge. He responds to my point that actuality trumps probability as follows:
“When it comes to extraordinary events like miracles, Rauser claim that “actuality trumps probability.” In this context such a claim is, well, stupid (sorry). “
He then goes on to explain:
“Yes, if Jesus healed a man born from birth then it doesn’t matter what the odds were, he did. For every event there is, after all, a non-zero probability that it could happen. So if these things really happened then they beat the odds, the incredible nearly unassailable odds.
“So? How do we know they happened? How does Rauser know?”
Unfortunately John’s blather here is completely irrelevant. I illustrated the point with a very concrete example which John conveniently ignores. In the example I pointed out that it is enormously unlikely that Charles’s new neighbor will be a Swedish transsexual named Mario. So let’s say that Charles’ other neighbor Fred informs him that his new neighbor is a Swedish transsexual named Mario. If Charles were following John’s logic he would have a defeater to Fred’s claim given the enormous improbability of his new neighbor being Swedish, a transsexual, and having the name Mario. But of course this is absurd. If Charles has no reason to doubt Fred’s testimony (e.g. evidence that Fred lies or is putting him on) then he can believe it, even though it is prima facie exceedingly unlikely that any neighbor should meet that exact description.
Likewise, a Christian is a person who currently believes a set of claims about God and our relation to him. If John wants to provide a defeater to those claims he can’t do so simply by intoning that it is enormously improbable that all these claims should be true. Rather, he has to provide a direct defeater to their truth. John seems to think that simply informing Christians that he, an atheist, thinks their beliefs are improbable should be sufficient to cause Christians to rethink their beliefs. That’s laughable. And it’s also equivalent to Mark thinking that simply because he prefers the Texas topography and climate that Dave should as well.
Next, John turns to explain why the five claims of atheistic naturalism that I summarize are not equally improbable. He writes:
“Whew! That’s a lot to answer for, isn’t it? These are legitimate objections that demand detailed answers. They are the type of objections that keep believers of all stripes and colors into their respective religious faiths and cultures. I cannot hope to disabuse believers of these objections here, although I face them head on in my writings and refer to others who have written on these subjects.”
Isn’t it interesting how John has nothing of substance to defend the “prior probability” of his own claims? Really John, what is the chance that DNA arose through undirected processes? Any guess?
John then reveals why he doesn’t really believe the five claims of atheistic naturalism are wildly improbable. It is because of his faith in science to explain them some day in accord with his worldview. He writes:
“One of the reasons I trust science to give us the answers is because religious believers cannot settle their own disputes. They have no agreed upon method. They have faith.”
So John “trusts” science, but he certainly doesn’t have “faith” in science. Of course this is merely a silly semantic game. John has faith that some day science will vindicate all the wildly improbable things he believes. And so his bold essay aiming to show that Christianity is wildly improbable really amounts to little more than John pleading to the Christian to abandon one faith for another.