Saturday, November 05, 2005

Truth and Consequences

Ernie's response to my last post is here.

I think, perhaps, we need to back up a bit. As I thought about how to respond to Ernie's answers to his summaries of my questions, I had this persistent feeling that, while Ernie has made a good faith effort to respond as best he knew how, we are lacking some kind of "meta-agreement". I do not know quite how to explain that, except to say that I feel like I need to back up and speak more generally, rather than respond point-by-point.

The single most important problem I have with Christianity is this: so long as eternal damnation is the claimed consequence for disbelief, Christianity (or God) would be unjust to impose such consequences so long as rational grounds for disbelief exist. The burden of proof, then, is very much on the side of Christians. I may be wrong in what I believe, but if you do not agree with me, I do not claim there will be eternal, personal consequences to you. (There will be natural consequences to you while you live, as well as consequences to others, in the normal ways that one person can affect others.)

One of my biggest questions, then, is, what is at stake here? Ernie has talked about Christianity being "the most effective value-creating, community-forming, character-developing, reality-changing humility-enforcing ideological movement in the history of humankind". He has not (in these couple of posts) said anything about eternal consequences, either good or bad. Statements like the one I just quoted are about as close to describing any consequences as he has come. That may be due simply to the structure of his argument, but I guess I need to know what we are talking about. Are we simply discussing a religion that (in Ernie's view) has been the most successful at bringing about social good? (I dispute that, by the way.) If so, my responses to Ernie will be much different than if there are eternal consequences in play.

For example, when I read

The statements I made are those I believe *I* can demonstrate are "relatively true" using readily-available objective evidence -- at least given enough time and effort, and appropriate interpretation.
these thoughts went through my head: I already expressed surprise at how little Ernie claimed as empirically knowable, and this further description of them does nothing to strengthen those statements. In fact, the standard Ernie is asking us to apply ("relatively true"), while stronger than "possibly true", is far short of "almost certainly true". And these statements are intended to be framework that "enables other types of knowledge -gathering [which] expands the sphere of useful information." I guess I don't see a framework that is only "relatively true" as being sufficient for supporting other knowledge-gathering activities, at least if the knowledge so gathered is held to be any more than "possibly true", and where the farther we get from the foundation, the less certain the knowledge becomes.

I mentioned earlier that I dispute Christianity's position as being such a superlative influence on humankind. This bears further examination. First, it seems to me that most of the descriptors that Ernie applied (like "value-creating") are intrinsically subjective measures, so I do not understand how such statements can be empirically supported, contrary to Ernie's belief that "any reasonable set of empirical criteria ... would bear out my claim." (Ernie follows that by admitting that it was a subjective assessment. I have been using "empirical" more or less as a synonym for "objective", so I wonder if Ernie means something a different. Ernie?)

The second difficulty here is in attribution. In my experience, Christians want to claim the good done by Christians while disowning the evil done by Christians. You may claim that those who did evil were not "true" Christians, or were not acting as Christians should, but as soon as you build that distinction into the definition, using the amount of good done by Christianity to support its value or truthfulness seems a bit shaky. To compare Christianity with other ideologies, you would at the very least need to offer the same distinction to them. Personally, I do not find an approach based on social good very compelling.

Ernie did end with three statements he thought I might agree to, based on empirical grounds. They were:
  • there was a historic figure named Jesus
  • he made claims regarding his divinity that were unusually strong for Judaic culture
  • his presence launched the worldwide Christian movement that claims descent from him
  • Of these, the first seems likely to me. There are people who dispute that Jesus actually existed, but I do not have any good reason to believe that. The only quibble I have with the third statement is with the word "launched": while his presence was a generally necessary condition, I think you could make the case that Paul especially and the other apostles were critical in "launching" Christianity. But I do not dispute that there is a "worldwide Christian movement that claims descent from him".

    The second statement is the most questionable of the three. I mentioned in a previous post that some people question whether Jesus actually made the claims of divinity attributed to him. In addition, I am not sure that his claims were "unusually strong" for Judaic culture. There were other people who made similar claims, from centuries before Jesus until much later. If I recall correctly, a Jew from the 16th century accumulated quite a following, claiming to be the messiah. I would also recommend this essay by Richard Carrier, in which he briefly reviews a number of other people that were at least in the same class as Jesus, in terms of claims of divinity, miracle-working, and so on. Not all of them were Jews, but some were, and some collected substantial followings before violent ends at the hands of Roman troops. (Richard Carrier has written quite a bit that I think would make good reading: you can find an index of his writing here).

    Does that help explain where I am coming from?

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