Contesting Christianity: Setting the Stage

Two Jehovah's Witnesses missionaries at doorThis past weekend, I had two Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door. I immediately told them (twice!) that I wasn’t interested, but they somehow kept their foot in the door by not letting me get a word in edgewise. Certainly they were polite, but their persistence was annoying for someone who clearly wasn’t interested. But this is just one example of the influence that religion can have over people’s lives. These JWs go door-to-door all over the world with a massively coordinated workforce of volunteers.

Despite my general tolerance for religion and religious believers, I would like to see the influence of religion lessened. I certainly affirm the right of every individual to believe what he or she wishes, but I also hold to the position that people should evaluate their beliefs critically, using reason and evidence. While some religious believers certainly do this, others do not, and yet others attempt on some level to do so without ever really critically engaging arguments that might challenge their beliefs. I used to fall into that latter category. I tried to use arguments and evidence to evaluate my faith, but my critical evaluation involved reading books like The Case For Christ (amazon.ca) rather than The God Delusion (amazon.ca). How one is supposed to critically evaluate one’s religion without reading anything that the opposing side writes is beyond me.

So I have decided to start a series entitled “Contesting Christianity”, in which I will take a look at some of the most common reasons that people use to support the Christian faith, and show why they are poor reasons. This is not really intended to convince so much as to inform. I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone to lose their faith simply because of my writings. But I hope that it will get people to think, or at the very least, I hope it will help Christians to become more knowledgeable about the arguments non-Christians use to dismiss Christianity.

Sign with line through Christian crossThis is, as far as I can recall, the first time I’ve tried to write a series. Hopefully anyone who reads this blog regularly will not be put off by the change. In the six years I’ve had this blog, I’ve put very little effort into making it worth the read—and that is fine. But I’m trying now to actually write things that people might possibly want to read. For once, I’m going to put some effort into it. Hopefully that will attract more people here than it scares off.

Anyway, I am going to try to make this series a weekly thing, but we’ll have to see whether I stick with that or not. In closing, please let me stress that this is ultimately intended as a discussion. I would love to hear any comments that religious and non-religious people have to say about what I’ve written. That goes for everything I’ve written, but doubly for this series. So please enjoy what I write, and engage with the material as much as you like. Thank you!

Index for Contesting Christianity:

  1. Setting the Stage
  2. Biblical Accuracy
  3. Resurrection
  4. Prayer and Miracles
  5. Philosophical Arguments
  6. Young Earth/Creationism
  7. Messianic Prophecies
  8. Personal Experience
  9. Consequentialist Arguments
  10. Wrapping Up

10 responses to “Contesting Christianity: Setting the Stage”

Gandy

Hey Jeff.

I never ever did find what you write to be at all boring .Just been dealing with some other stuff a bit more lately.Plus sometimes worry a little i might offend others who read your blog too.

If christianity had only ever effected my life by JWs knocking on me door every now and then.Most likely i wouldnt see much problem other than it being a little annoying.But sadly it sometimes effects some peoples lives so much further than that.

JWs are hard to get rid of sometimes .But some cults is like having some family confined and forever imprisoned within the metaphorical walls of Hitler type “faith” death camp.

And if they were being burned in kilns then somebody might start caring to take action to do something about it .

Buts instead its classed as freedom of faith .

You take care Jeff

Corinne

Hey Cousin!

I have also been pestered by JW at the door (who hasn’t been at one time or another). I have told them time and time again that I am Pentecostal, a born-again Christian, and a Christian on different occasions. It does get annoying. It’s gotten to the point where I will take the pamphlet, then throw it out. No, I will not be attending Christ’s Memorial, because I believe He rose again! lol Usually, I just won’t answer the door. There is no point arguing with them because they keep coming back. One tried to convert me once. Badgering someone is not the way to convert them! Not my approach, anyway…

I do not consider myself “religious”, but a Christian trying to do my best to follow Christ everyday in every way. I don’t claim to be perfect, I am only human. I don’t consider myself better than anyone. Again, I am only human and have my short comings. I don’t pretend to have all the answers and don’t expect to. I live by faith, and if that make me crazy, then commit me to the loony bin. Well, there’s my brief statement! And that’s all I have to say about it for now! lol (-:

Looking forward to seeing what you have to say in the coming weeks, especially about prayer and miracles!

Corinne

Jeff

Thanks for the comments, guys! Certainly we all have our different experiences of religions, but it’s nice to see that we can all unite by hating the JWs (just kidding!). Hopefully the upcoming series will have something of interest for all of us, though – that’s my plan.

As always, I appreciate your comments 🙂

Jeff

Gandy

I see looks like maybe the art of excellence in writing “runs in the blood” Jeff .Corinne is your cousin, and she already has a long list of books.Thats truly massive ,well done Corinne .

Corinne

Thank you, Gandy! Working on my next couple of books… when I discipline myself to do so, that is! lol The key is to write even when you don’t want to… and right now, I don’t want to! I’m easily distracted! I’m 33, not 5! lol

Corinne

Gandy

Yes that i understand Corinne.Motivation and discipline is a big thing.I have been meaning to try writing a biography of the crazy life of a ex cult member,because from what ive seen seems some people really enjoy reading about that subject.My cousin wrote her story already http://www.behind-closed-doors.org/

Trouble is although i really do enjoy writing,and enjoy to keep intouch and discuss stuff with folk online.With regard to remembering my past cult life and writing about it,i find im much more “motivated” to try my best forgetting! about it, and lack the “discipline” to give myself a good swift kick-n the butt to get writing it down! ..L.o.L

But as you said …”The key is to write even when you don’t want to”

You working on “Two” books …Wow !!… You is a real writing machine 🙂

Bryan Norford

Hello Jeff:
I have begun reading your blogs on Contesting Christianity with interest, and after reading your first on the series, Setting the Stage, I take the liberty of offering an initial response. I do so, partly on your invitation in the blog, but also Kim Adeniran—who is, I believe, the mother of a friend of yours— introduced me to your blog and thought I might be interested in dialoguing with you.
So far, I have read only the first article, so what I have to say could be moderated later. But I would like to respond as I read through each section of the series. So this is the first of several that I trust you find engaging.
In this article, the second paragraph contains your debatable material. You use “critically evaluate/engage” in some form four times, and I commend your determination to be sure of your beliefs. I agree that one may display a faith apparently based on a flimsy line of reasoning. But the question arises: Does that person have the capacity to develop an in depth resolution of intellectual argument that is fundamentally necessary for faith?
This raises a number of issues. First, your requirement for critical evaluation eliminates any with a less critical ability from coming to their own belief about faith.
Second, as I’m sure you are aware, new empirical evidence often demolishes previously held reasoning; scientific reasoning is always tentative. Furthermore, the limited scope of our five senses prevents them from journeying far down the road to spirituality.
Third, faith cannot be based on evidence alone, or it wouldn’t be called “faith.” Faith is necessary when the evidence is inconclusive, and implicit in the Christian “faith” is that we cannot empirically prove the basis of belief.
Fourth, assessing Christian faith goes beyond intellectual reasoning—although that has always been a supporting component—and involves the whole person including physical and emotional faculties. To illustrate, I can make an examination of my leg using my five senses and pronounce it in perfect condition, but the pain I feel tells me that evaluation is wrong and determines my belief about the state of my leg. The same idea can extend to our emotions and eventually religious belief.
Of course, emotions and physical pain can mislead, but so can intellectual assumptions. I am constantly amazed how often pronouncements about what food is good or bad for me are reversed! You have implied experience is often the promoter of religious belief without adequate reason to establish it. But that doesn’t make it invalid, anymore than reasoned argument may claim to refute it. Experience may be imagined and intellectual assumptions limited by incomplete knowledge.
Well, here are some ideas to ponder in relation to establishing faith. Religious belief is so universal I have to wonder what prompts it in the first place. Any particular religious belief, whether right or wrong, can be used for good or evil, but its pervasiveness everywhere and throughout history is a mystery reason can only partly address.
If you wish to respond, I’d be happy to discuss these ideas further. Look forward to more time on your blogs.
Bryan (Norford)
http://www.norfords.blogspot.com
http://www.norfords-writings.com

Jeff

Well welcome, Bryan! I’m glad that you’ve stopped by, and I am interested in hearing your response to the rest of the series. But let me respond to some of the things you said here.

But the question arises: Does that person have the capacity to develop an in depth resolution of intellectual argument that is fundamentally necessary for faith?
This raises a number of issues. First, your requirement for critical evaluation eliminates any with a less critical ability from coming to their own belief about faith.

I don’t think I’m saying that at all. One can only reach conclusions based on the evidence one has. That seems pretty uncontroversial. Certainly, we should try to be as informed as we possibly can, but in the end, we can’t reach a conclusion (rationally, at any rate) based on evidence that we don’t know about. So everyone can come to their own belief about faith, and for those who have “less critical ability”, they must come to their own belief to the ability that they are able. I think that’s all that could ever be expected.

Second, as I’m sure you are aware, new empirical evidence often demolishes previously held reasoning; scientific reasoning is always tentative.

Certainly scientific reasoning is tentative. But that does not stop us from making assessments of probability based on the evidence we have. If we did not do this in every other area of our lives, we would never be able to do anything at all. There’s no deductive way to determine whether a chair will hold your weight, for example.

Third, faith cannot be based on evidence alone, or it wouldn’t be called “faith.” Faith is necessary when the evidence is inconclusive, and implicit in the Christian “faith” is that we cannot empirically prove the basis of belief.

Before I make the mistake of arguing with yet another person about what “faith” is, I’m going to need you to clarify how you define it. Right now, it sounds like you are defining it as “making a decision based on incomplete evidence”. And if this is the case, then yes, faith is necessary, but that becomes a trivial point. Even if the evidence is incomplete or inconclusive, this does not give us free rein to believe anything. We are still rationally restrained by what evidence we have, and we can still (as I previously said) make an assessment of the probability—where the weight of the evidence lies, in other words. However, if you have a different idea of “faith”, please do share, because the term tends to get used in multiple ways.

Fourth, assessing Christian faith goes beyond intellectual reasoning—although that has always been a supporting component—and involves the whole person including physical and emotional faculties. To illustrate, I can make an examination of my leg using my five senses and pronounce it in perfect condition, but the pain I feel tells me that evaluation is wrong and determines my belief about the state of my leg. The same idea can extend to our emotions and eventually religious belief.

I don’t think emotions are a very good guide to truth. Even if constrained by reason, they still tend to lead us astray. Emotions are excellent at motivating us towards certain actions, and that is fine. But in terms of helping us uncover metaphysical reality? That seems suspect. However, in terms of emotions being part of our “experience”, I suppose they are at least admissible as evidence in favour of or against things. But just like phantom limb pains can cause emotions about a limb that does not even exist, emotions can be very tricky to pin down in terms of what caused them. Your feelings of the presence of Jesus is another person’s feelings of the presence of Krishna. So at most, emotions seem to be weak evidence for what really exists out there in the world.

Of course, emotions and physical pain can mislead, but so can intellectual assumptions. I am constantly amazed how often pronouncements about what food is good or bad for me are reversed! You have implied experience is often the promoter of religious belief without adequate reason to establish it. But that doesn’t make it invalid, anymore than reasoned argument may claim to refute it. Experience may be imagined and intellectual assumptions limited by incomplete knowledge.

Well, nutrition is a fairly weak science in the first place, but putting that aside, sure, reason and intellect can fail us. And sure, experience can be a valid guide to truth, especially when dealing with things in the physical world. I’m willing to agree that we have no source of truth that is 100% reliable. However, reasoning based on evidence seems to be the best source that we have. It’s the reason that we are even able to have this conversation without ever having met each other in person. So in the course of searching for truth, I choose to place my bet on the source that is most likely to get results. And while it is always tentative and open to change based on new evidence, I can only make decisions based on evidence that I have right now.

Religious belief is so universal I have to wonder what prompts it in the first place. Any particular religious belief, whether right or wrong, can be used for good or evil, but its pervasiveness everywhere and throughout history is a mystery reason can only partly address.

As an aspiring social psychologist, I don’t think you really want to get me started on this topic 🙂 But suffice to say, while religious belief is universal, it is as incredibly diverse as any other human endeavour. Its diversity doesn’t seem to be easily explained if one singular deity who wishes us to know about himself exists. It seems much better explained by the fact that we humans like ascribing agency to objects and events, but that those ascriptions are directed by the existing culture that we are within.

Anyway, with all that said, I look forward to your further comments! I hope that, regardless of the persuasiveness of my arguments, that they will at least provoke interesting discussion 🙂

Jeff

Bryan Norford

Hi Jeff:
Thanks for your prompt response to my initial contribution to your site; especially, as I’m sure you are continually committed elsewhere. My own life is pretty full with other projects also, and my responses may be erratic—in timing, not, I hope, in content!
I don’t want to spend too much space hashing over the same ground too long; I am interested in moving to your other articles, but let me reply to some responses you put forth. And if my assumptions for atheists are wrong, I’m sure you’ll correct me!
You are right to centre on how we define faith. Faith is not what the little boy said: “believing something that isn’t true!” In the religious sense, faith is “the evidence of things not seen”—a common enough description from a well-known source, and deals specifically with reality beyond our senses. While the atheist assumes anything beyond our senses a strong improbability, his belief still requires a final stretch of faith. Final proof of the non-existence—like the existence—of God will probably never arise.
Thus, having faith is not a trivial issue, for all views of God, for or against His existence, require a level of faith beyond circumstantial evidence. Scientific reasoning simply ducks the whole question by self-limiting itself to the tangible. It cannot prove love, for instance because love can only be understood by subjective, common experience and feeling. Similarly, religious faith has to be based on wider terms of reference, beyond intellectual reasoning, where science can’t go. For many of us, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence—both reason and experience, personal and corporate, to support our beliefs. But faith is the final step—for both you and me!
What I don’t believe is that fables and lies can bring lasting benefit, perhaps in the short term. That’s why people believe in God rather than fairies—false assumptions are undermined too easily. Nor was I suggesting that we can believe anything we want—although some do!—but reason, experience and less intangible but legitimate factors—mentoring, gut feelings, maybe others—influence our belief about truth.
Much of our other discussion relates back to this understanding of faith. For our basic belief or worldview colours everything else we judge. For instance, if there is no God, then ascription, as you suggest, explains theist belief. But if there is a God, then ascription is reversed; we understand relationships because they are God given. I doubt there is convergence on this or any similar belief.
I agree with you that we have to make judgments on the evidence we have. Again, our sources of evidence will vary according to our basic belief. But, as an aside, we can calculate whether a chair will hold us; the stresses in the seat and leg can be calculated to ensure sufficient wood will contain the stresses for the weight we place on it!
One final point. I note you wish for less religious influence. But atheistic belief is religious, debating God and requiring a level of faith. It is just another offering on the religious smorgasbord. It’s sister, secularism, deserves no more influence than other religious beliefs.
OK, I won’t pursue further the source of religious belief. I plan to read further on your Contesting Christianity, but of course, feel free to respond to today’s comments.
Thanks for your continued interest,
Bryan

Jeff

Hi Bryan:

In the religious sense, faith is “the evidence of things not seen”—a common enough description from a well-known source, and deals specifically with reality beyond our senses.

Alright, well thanks for defining faith. The difficulty here is that I think that this biblical definition is a poor one. I guess I would challenge the idea that faith is a type of “evidence.” That seems to water down the idea of “evidence” to make it essentially useless. But at any rate, how you seem to be using the word is something like “the inductive leap from probabilistic evidence to a conclusion.” I’m gathering this essentially from your next two sentences:

While the atheist assumes anything beyond our senses a strong improbability, his belief still requires a final stretch of faith. Final proof of the non-existence—like the existence—of God will probably never arise.

In other words, I view it to be improbable that God exists, but I must have faith to get from that to belief that he does not exist. I can accept that form of the definition. However, I do have to correct you on one thing: I don’t think that there is “proof of the non-existence of God”. And from what I have read and been told by other atheists, the vast majority of them do not either. It is two very different things to say, “There is not enough evidence to believe God exists” and “There is enough evidence to believe God does not exist”. I believe the former, and most other atheists do as well. I try to only believe things that have good evidence to support their existence. So just as I don’t believe unicorns exist because there is no good evidence to support their existence, I also don’t believe God exists, for the same reason.

If you’d like to call it “faith” to jump from probabilistic evidence to a conclusion, that’s fine, but that still doesn’t equate Christians and atheists. We can still talk about who has more faith. And if we use faith in this sense, it seems like the goal is still to try to minimize faith, in order to rely most heavily on the evidence that exists. If that’s the case, who do you think has more faith: the person who believes the natural world is all there is, or the person who believes there is an entire other supernatural realm that no one has ever seen and that includes a personal Being who is all-powerful and all-knowing and has developed a master plan to save us all and gotten people to write it all down in a book for us?

Scientific reasoning simply ducks the whole question by self-limiting itself to the tangible. It cannot prove love, for instance because love can only be understood by subjective, common experience and feeling.

I don’t know what you mean when you say science can’t “prove love”. I wasn’t aware that anyone needed to “prove” its existence. We have a set of emotions, attitudes, and behaviours that we as human beings call “love”, and when we experience some rough combination of these phenomena, we know we are experiencing “love”. Science can take a look at when and where and how and why people experience these emotions, attitudes, and behaviours. But the analogy doesn’t fit, because love is something inside of us. Unless you are trying to argue that God is just an idea that we have, then it is dis-analogous. We can study peoples emotions, ideas, feelings, etc. We can’t study things that by definition are outside of the natural realm and not sensible by any of our senses.

Similarly, religious faith has to be based on wider terms of reference, beyond intellectual reasoning, where science can’t go. For many of us, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence—both reason and experience, personal and corporate, to support our beliefs. But faith is the final step—for both you and me!

I don’t dispute that people have experiences which they attribute to God. But we don’t see the cause and effect between God and their experiences, and people are often wrong about the source of their experiences (see, for example, research done on the misattribution of arousal). All we know is that people are having experiences. If you want to say that “God” is simply what we call those experiences, then fine. But if you want to argue that there is actually a metaphysically distinct being which exists outside of space and time, I don’t think personal experience can be used as evidence at all with this. It’s one thing to say you have “evidence”, whether scientific or not—it’s another thing to actually have it.

Nor was I suggesting that we can believe anything we want—although some do!—but reason, experience and less intangible but legitimate factors—mentoring, gut feelings, maybe others—influence our belief about truth.

Gut feelings are quite frequently wrong. Without some credible method of distinguishing the “right” feelings from the “wrong” feelings, I hardly think this constitutes a “legitimate” form of evidence. Perhaps for starters, you’d like to explain how you would distinguish your Christian God gut feeling from a Muslim’s Allah gut feeling from a Hindu’s Krishna gut feeling.

I note you wish for less religious influence. But atheistic belief is religious, debating God and requiring a level of faith. It is just another offering on the religious smorgasbord. It’s sister, secularism, deserves no more influence than other religious beliefs.

This is a common statement by religious people, but it’s simply not true. Atheism only has “faith” in that trivial sense that we talked about, dealing with induction. I’ll grant that, but atheists don’t have any other characteristics that we normally ascribe to religion. No holy texts, no religious services, no rituals or practices, no specific beliefs about the nature of the universe or the purpose of mankind (remember, atheism is just a lack of belief in God…that’s it). And secularism is more of a philosophy about how politics and/or culture should be performed. I would hardly call that a religion either.

Anyway, with all that said, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the rest of my articles in the series. We, of course, disagree on many things, but hopefully our discussion can still be productive.

Jeff

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