Today we welcome our next entry in the series “Why they don’t believe”. Chris Hallquist blogs as The Uncredible Hallq and has written a book titled UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God which is available for free download (though donations are welcome) here.
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“I was raised in a liberal Christian family. That meant I was never anywhere close to being a fundamentalist, and my mother (who has a PhD in biochemistry) inoculated me against creationism early on. On the other hand, I still absorbed Christianity in Bertrand Russell’s minimal sense of believing in God and that Jesus was the wisest and best of men.
“I was first exposed to philosophy of religion some time in middle school, via Tom Morris’ Philosophy for Dummies. The arguments for the existence of God it presented (which included Plantinga’s modal ontological argument) seemed to me obviously very bad. For example, I didn’t know any modal logic at the time, but I independently thought up a version of the Gaunilo’s island reply to Plantinga’s argument. (Actually learning modal logic in college only confirmed my initial reaction. Consider: possibly it’s a necessary truth that pigs fly. Therefore, by the S5 axioms of modal logic, pigs fly.)
“At the same time, I made some initial efforts reading the Bible for myself. I liked the gospels the most, and mostly that’s what I read. Still, sometimes Jesus said things that seemed questionable; I told myself that because he was so wise, there must be some wisdom in there somewhere. Once, while reading Mark, I noticed that Mark had very little of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’/ ‘Good Samaritan’ material I like so much in Matthew and Luke, and seemed to be mainly Jesus talking about how the world was going to end soon. I think at the time I just suppressed that line of thought, though later I’d learn that the view of Jesus as a failed apocalyptic preacher was widespread among Biblical scholars.
“But by age 16, I realized I had no better reason to believe in the Christian god than in Zeus. It was sooner than that, but 16 was when I admitted it to myself, and realized that ‘faith’ would be nothing more than pretending to believe what I no longer did. And once I stopped think of myself as a Christian, it became easy to see that Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels was not very wise at all, and that liberal Christians had no better claim to ‘true Christianity’ than the worst fundamentalists.
“Then I encountered Christian apologetics; many of their arguments seemed superficially impressive, but when I looked closer I was appalled by what I found. One of the biggest examples of this is Lee Strobel’s claim that the Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White “meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world” and determined the gospels could not possibly be legends, but when I got to a university library and actually read Sherwin-White’s book, I realized this claim was so wildly inaccurate that Strobel had to be either lying or else had not read the book.
“It also briefly appeared to me that there might be too Intelligent Design, which led to me spending a lot more time reading about evolution, which led to me realizing not only that there wasn’t anything to Intelligent Design, but that in many cases the ID folks were using the exact same arguments as the creationists. (Here, William Dembski’s use of the ‘evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics!’ argument sticks with me.)
“Seeing the ignorance and dishonesty of Christian apologetics (sometimes I can’t tell which it is; sometimes I’m sure it’s the latter) pissed me off. That’s why I’ve spent a great deal of my time working to counter it.”
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In this series I follow up each statement with some initial thoughts based on selected excerpts, so here goes:
“I was raised in a liberal Christian family. That meant I was never anywhere close to being a fundamentalist…”
The term “fundamentalist” is used in different ways. It is true that anybody raised in a family which would self-identify as “liberal Christian” (or progressive Christian) is likely not fundamentalist in the socio-historical sense that traces back to a conservative reform movement of Protestant Christianity which began a century ago. But that is really of secondary interest. You see, the term “fundamentalist” is also used to flag an orientation that includes intellectual insularity, defensiveness and the brusque dismissal of opposing views. This is the most worrisome expression of the term. Common hallmarks of fundamentalism in this sense include (but are not limited to) the tendency to impute to those with whom one disagrees intellectual and/or moral failings. For example, John Loftus prides himself on saying the arguments I offer in favor of theism are completely “worthless”. For an argument to be completely worthless presumably means that it is logically invalid or its premises are demonstrably false. But the arguments I invoke for theism are surely not worthless in that sense. Consequently, when John Loftus left the Christian fundamentalism of his earlier years, he rejected the Christian trappings of belief but retained his fundamentalist disposition.
When I read Chris’s statement that the arguments for God’s existence which Tom Morris (a top-flight philosopher) summarized are “obviously very bad”, or when Chris writes without qualification of the “ignorance and dishonesty of Christian apologetics”, I worry that I am seeing the fundamentalist marginalization of the other through the sweeping imputation of ignorance and moral corruption to his intellectual foes. (To compare, it would be indefensible for me to write of “the ignorance and dishonesty of atheological apologetics”. Certainly some atheological apologetics, like some Christian apologetics, may arise out of ignorance and/or dishonesty. But broad-brushing all the products of atheology would be completely indefensible. Mutatis mutandis for Christian theology and apologetics.) In conclusion, Chris certainly leaves this reader with the impression that Christian apologists, philosophers and Christians generally are either completely ignorant or morally corrupt, or both.
“by age 16, I realized I had no better reason to believe in the Christian god than in Zeus.”
Is Chris simply saying that he realized that he lacked a reason to believe in the Christian God over Zeus? Or is he saying, more strongly, that he came to believe nobody else had a reason to believe in the Christian God over Zeus? The former claim is quite modest, since it would only relate to personal justification. If, on the contrary, Chris is making the latter claim that nobody has a better reason to believe in the Christian God, then his statement is demonstrably absurd. (I’ll be happy to unpack that claim in a subsequent post if anyone should care to challenge it.)
“realizing not only that there wasn’t anything to Intelligent Design, but that in many cases the ID folks were using the exact same arguments as the creationists.”
Once again we find Chris issuing a sweeping dismissal, this time in the statement that there “wasn’t anything to Intelligent Design”. From Francis Crick proposing a panspermia thesis to explain the origin of DNA to atheist Thomas Nagel pointing out the strength of Meyer’s argument from biological information to atheist philosopher of science Bradley Monton defending the ID program, it is clear that Chris’ assessment of ID is simply not correct. Whether or not consensus is achieved on the propriety of explaining any specific natural structure or process in accord with intelligence is a separate matter from whether it is in principle possible to do so. And on the latter issue the ID folk have raised an important debate in the philosophy of science regarding the place of intelligent cause in scientific explanation.