Today I’m initiating a new series simply titled “Why they don’t believe.” Each is borne out of an invitation to a well-established internet atheist and/or skeptic to share his reasons for rejecting Christianity (or theism). I invited each to write a paragraph on the topic with my initial intention being to collate them in a single post.
Bad idea. Well, more like an “unreasonably-ambitious for a blog-post” idea.
So the single post morphed into a series. In each case we’ll begin with an introduction to the atheist and/or skeptic. Next, we’ll consider his reasons for his position in his own words. And finally, I’ll offer some preliminary reflections.
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First up we have Justin Schieber, an important presence on the skeptical scene as one of the hosts of the “Reasonable Doubts” podcast. Justin loves to get in the thick of debate and he’s done several of them including his appearance on the radio program “Unbelievable” debating the Amalekite genocide. Justin was the first to get back to me. But not only did he get back to me: he sent this response within an hour of the initial request. Now that’s fast. Even better, it’s thoughtful and articulate. So let’s give Justin a listen and come back for some discussion afterward.
I’ve been asked by my friend Randal Rauser to write a short summary of some of the reasons why I do not call myself a Christian. I will take this as not merely a request for pointing out that I have yet to come across what I think are compelling positive arguments/evidence that make Christian theism more probable than not, rather I will take is as a request for reasons I think make the traditional Christian story is improbable.
First, I think the prior probability of the specifically Christian story being true is very low. Christianity posits several complex and counter-intuitive entities that I think are better understood as liabilities. For instance, under Christianity, there exists a non-material being capable of any logically possible physical (and non-physical) feat and who exists as a strange collection of 3 separate but distinct modes of consciousness. Distinct enough to ask for requests from one another yet uniform enough to be referred to as a single agent and have its intentional actions being claimed as ‘best explanations’ of things in our world.. Among its abilities is the idea that this being can create something out of absolute nothingness. Non-theists are often criticized for believing something as counter-intuitive as a Universe popping into being from nothing. I don’t subscribe to that view but I have always found this complaint coming from Christian theists a bit strange. It may be the case that, say a grand piano popping into existence from absolute nothingness is wildly counter-intuitive but I certainly see no reason to think that a piano maker ‘causing’ a piano to exist without any building materials or tools is any less counter-intuitive. If the first scenario is absurd, so too is the second.
Second, I also think Rowe-style evidential arguments are a big problem for Christian theism. If I am not mistaken, a basic theological truth of Christian theism is that God would only permit an instance of suffering (Or an evil, if you prefer) if it was logically necessary for some greater Good to obtain or for the avoidance of some other equal or greater instance of suffering. Though, many of the sufferings we know of don’t seem like they have a justification in the form of that particular suffering being logically necessary for some greater good or avoiding greater suffering. I think a rational person should look at the entire history of life on this planet and think, probably, there is at least one instance of suffering that wasn’t logically necessary and so conclude that, all else being equal, probably, God does not exist. Of course the common rejoinder is to deny that we are in a position to place probabilities on what kinds of things God is willing to permit because we are in such an unfortunate epistemic position compared to God. The Christian will say that we simply have no good reasons to think that the goods, evils and entailment relations between these things that WE can think of are representative of those that actually exist. This does seem to undermine the key inference in the Rowe-style argument but not without taking away our ability to place probabilities on God’s having morally justifiable reasons for lying to us about the nature of Jesus and the necessary/sufficient conditions for achieving (or being granted) salvation. If we take this road, we can’t ‘know’ that what Lewis referred to as Mere Christianity is actually true in even the most liberal sense of what it means to ‘know’ something.
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I am struck by Justin’s opener: “the prior probability of the specifically Christian story being true is very low. Christianity posits several complex and counter-intuitive entities….” When I read this I thought of an article I once wrote called “Naturalism and the ole’ swimming hole”. Since the article is brief I’ve quoted it in full here:
Picture yourself taking your kids to the community pool with your favorite yellow inner tube when your friend retorts: “Community pool? That’s disgusting! Do you know what they have in that water? Crap and pee and barf, all floating around in particles too small to see.”
Taken aback at this rather bold affront, you ask your friend: “So where are you taking your kids?”
Your friend smiles. “The old swimming hole” he says over his shoulder as he and the kids walk away.
The old swimming hole?! How hypocritical is that? Here this guy is obsessively concerned about every nasty particle in the community pool but he never bats an eye that he’s swimming in the bodily waste of uncountable numbers of forest creatures (and a few kids besides) and all of it untreated by even a single shot of chlorine.
I can’t help but think of this image every time I take a hit from an atheist/skeptic/agnostic/humanist who snorts about the problems s/he sees with Christianity while never bothering to test the water at the ole’ naturalist’s swimming hole.
I’m not saying Justin “snorts” about the problems with Christianity. I am saying, however, that he has not provided any reason to think that naturalism provides an account of reality the prior probability of which is anything other than “very low”. In his favor, as the first paragraph continues Justin recognizes that these two different pictures (Christianity and naturalism or atheism) each appear counter-intuitive or even “absurd” to the individual not committed to the belief system in question. But the question remains: to what extent does this recognition undermine his opening point?
Next, let’s consider Justin’s comments on evil. He writes:
“a basic theological truth of Christian theism is that God would only permit an instance of suffering (Or an evil, if you prefer) if it was logically necessary for some greater Good to obtain or for the avoidance of some other equal or greater instance of suffering.”
The phrase “basic theological truth” begs for definition. It is certainly a commonly held truth but it is not a dogmatically required truth and there are many Christian theologians and philosophers who reject it including open theists, process theists, and several prominent contemporary Christian philosophers. (See, for example, Peter van Inwagen’s classic essay “The place of chance in a world sustained by God.”)
“I think a rational person should look at the entire history of life on this planet and think, probably, there is at least one instance of suffering that wasn’t logically necessary and so conclude that, all else being equal, probably, God does not exist.”
Just as “basic theological truth” begs definition, so does “rational person”. Rational persons have a background set of beliefs and the new beliefs they form are considered reasonable in part due to their fit with those background beliefs. Rational persons also have different experiences (which help to form those different sets of background beliefs). As a result, two different individuals may find themselves in a very different position when assessing p. It may be rational for Jones to assent to p based on his background beliefs and experiences, but it may be rational for Smith to assent to not-p based on his background beliefs and experiences.
So let’s say a bit more about Jones and Smith. Jones is an atheist and he believes God doesn’t exist based upon a range of personal experiences and a set of powerful arguments. Smith is a theist and he believes God does exist based upon a range of personal experiences and a set of powerful arguments. Jones and Smith both seem to pass muster as rational, Jones perhaps more so than a fundamentalist backwoods Christian and Smith perhaps more so than a fundamentalist gnu atheist. It may be rational for Jones to “look at the entire history of life on this planet and think, probably, there is at least one instance of suffering that wasn’t logically necessary and so conclude that, all else being equal, probably, God does not exist.” But why think it is rational for Smith?