In this article I’m going to focus on the claim of the Reasonable Doubts doubtcasters that Christian doctrines are “clearly false”. The topic arises from the statement of a doubtcaster in my blog that:
“in past episodes [of the podcast] we have certainly referred to Christian doctrines as ‘bullshit’ meaning ‘clearly false’.”
Before continuing, let me note one thing. This is an incorrect use of the term “bullshit”. The philosophical discussion of the concept of “bullshit” began with philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 1985 academic paper “On Bullshit” in which he summarizes his theory that a person bullshits when they make truth statements without caring whether those claims are true or not. (See my discussion of the Frankfurtean type of bullshit here.) Philosopher G.A. Cohen identified a second type which he identified as “unclarifiable unclarity”. If Frankfurtean bullshit often characterizes sales-speak and political-speak, the Cohenian type characterizes some forms of philosophical and theological discourse. (I summarize both types and identify examples in contemporary theology in my essay “Theology as a Bull Session,” in Analytic Theology, ed. Crisp and Rea (Oxford University Press, 2009.)
But there is no academic analysis (certainly none of which I’m aware) that identifies “clearly false” beliefs as bullshit. Indeed, that usage makes no sense. For example, Billy may insist that Seattle is larger than Beijing. You know this is clearly false, but it doesn’t follow that it is bullshit.
Based on this analysis I must conclude that by calling Christian doctrines bullshit, the doubtcasters are not intending any technical use of the term. Rather, they are merely wielding it as a pejorative. That’s important because several people have reprimanded me by asserting that the doubtcasters treat Christians with courtesy and intellectual seriousness. But this is difficult to believe when they opt to use a mere pejorative to describe Christian beliefs.
Now let’s set aside this unfortunate pejorative and turn our attention to the underlying claim. The doubtcasters believe Christian doctrines are “clearly false”. But which doctrines exactly? All of them? Let’s consider four big ones:
(1) God exists.
(2) God is three persons.
(3) God the Son atoned for the sins of humanity.
(4) The Bible is God’s Word.
Since I am an academic theologian, it is of great interest to me to see how the doubtcasters purport to demonstrate that (1)-(4) are “clearly false”. And so I’d like to extend a formal invitation to them to do so. In short, I’d like them to demonstrate how every rational person would accept the denial of (1)-(4). Of course, to do that, they should also articulate and defend the definition of reason with which they’re working. Indeed, this demand entails that they must demonstrate how any rational person would accept their definition of rationality. (It should be obvious that it is no accomplishment to establish that Christians are irrational to accept (1)-(4) relative to a definition of rationality that few people accept!)
Oh yeah, one more thing. The doubtcasters are surely aware that Christians don’t accept (1)-(4) simpliciter. Rather, they accept (1)-(4) with respect to one theoretical interpretation or another. For example, I accept (2) in accord with Michael Rea’s logical analysis of sameness without identity. And I accept (3) minimally in accord with Girardean and governmental theories of atonement. And I accept (4) in accord with a Wolterstorffean appropriation account of biblical inspiration.
So for the doubtcasters to demonstrate that (1)-(4) are irrational, they must demonstrate that no orthodox interpretation of (1)-(4) could be accepted by a rational person. This includes (but is obviously not limited to) the theoretical accounts I adumbrated however briefly.
I can already hear some folks protesting that these are unfair demands. But I would demand the same thing of a Christian who asserted that the naturalist’s claim that “Everything that exists is natural” is irrational. I would say to my fellow Christian, “Brother (or Sister), that’s a strong claim. So to defend it you must show that all the major naturalist interpretations of the claim that “Everything that exists is natural” are irrational according to a standard definition of rationality that no rational person could deny.” Insofar as Christians can’t do this, they ought to refrain from making blanket statements about the (ir)rationality of atheistic naturalists.
Likewise, to the extent that Reasonable Doubts fails to meet these same criteria, they ought to refrain from making sweeping claims about Christian doctrines like (1)-(4) being “clearly false”.
Okay, one last thing. Somebody asked me today: “Are you having a feud with Reasonable Doubts?” A feud? No. I prefer to call it a genuinely congenial disagreement. I bear absolutely no ill will toward these four doubtcasters. But I am a Christian and a systematic theologian by profession, so when folks make ambitious claims about the irrationality of those within my belief community, of course I’m going to challenge them on it.