Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Weight of Justice

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

In Round and Round, Ernie continues our meta-discussion that seems to be making some progress. He points out, quite correctly, that "our ultimate goal is 'to pursue the truth' rather than merely defend our initial positions". Back in Convergent Elocution, Ernie used the phrase "'win' Round One" and my intent in Where Did We Put Those Goalposts? in using similar terminology was merely to continue the analogy, not to suggest an adversarial stance of the sort that might normally be associated with "winning" and especially "fighting".

Still, I should thank Ernie for emphasizing that goal and apologize for beginning to lose sight of that. Sorry, Ernie.

Ernie summarized (surprise, surprise) what he now sees as my fundamental argument as Christianity and asked for some confirmation and elaboration:

Given that, I'd actually like to start over. In particular, I would like to take a more Socratic and less didactic approach, to make sure I understand Alan's questions before proposing answers. Let me start by summarizing what appears to be the fundamental reason Alan considers Christianity untenable:

  1. a reasonable conception of justice would require the subject of the belief to be believable, to be well-supported by both evidence and reason
  2. evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is insufficient to justify belief in its occurrence
  3. yes there are unanswered questions under most if not all theories.
  4. But then, none of those (scientific) theories posit eternal consequences to someone who does not believe the theory, [and]
  5. the unknowns or uncertainties generally do not revolve around the core assertions of the theory, not if the theory is widely supported.
  6. In the case of Christianity, I think the unanswered questions are too large, too important, so that those questions must be answered first before assenting (even provisionally) to the truth of theory.

So, my initial questions to Alan are:

  1. Is this in fact your fundamental argument against Christianity, such that resolving it one way or the other would ultimately lead to convergence?
  2. Would you agree that a coherent understanding of justice is central to your argument, or can you reformulate it to be independent of moral considerations?
  3. If there was no Biblical requirement for hell -- say (purely hypothetically) I could provide evidence that the concept of eternal suffering was a hermeneutical error -- would that dramatically change your argument?
  4. Would you accept a justification of Christianity that was consistent with the level of confidence we typically expect for:
    1. - scientific theories (e.g., quantum physics)
    2. - historical events (e.g. Apollo astronauts walked on the moon), and/or
    3. - personal relationships (e.g., my mother loves me)

And perhaps most important of all: do you see the relevance of my questions? If not, please tell me now, to ensure I don't lead you down another rathole.

(Sorry for the long quote, but it makes for easy referral to individual items by letter or number.>

Last question first: yes, I believe I understand the importance of Ernie's questions.

To answer (1) I would first answer (2) and (3). The importance of justice and of hell to my argument is to emphasize the implications of the deficiencies in the evidence for the truth of Christianity (which depends, of course, on just how you define Christianity). If there were no consequences whatsoever attached to belief or disbelief, well, there would not be much point in (dis)believing or in discussing the matter, let alone weighing the evidence. On the other hand, if the consequences are as extreme as many Christians believe, I do think (as I have stated numerous times before) that justice would require a stringent standard of evidence. But even if Ernie proposes a system of justice that avoids this problem, that would not affect the strength of the actual evidence. So, while I am curious about how Ernie sees the hell-and-justice tension resolved, I suspect it would be better to avoid that path for now and focus instead on the evidentiary issues.

I should note that the problem of hell was important to me personally in the process of "losing faith" for essentially the reasons I have noted, as I have stated several times. I do not want to minimize its importance in that respect. I just do not think it is the best way forward from this point for our discussion.

Removing (a) from Ernie's summary of my argument leaves the rest essentially intact. Of course, only (b) really addresses evidence; (c) through (f) are more or less commentary. Other lines of evidence we could examine include the accuracy, honesty and authenticity of the Bible or the distinctiveness of the Church through history (or lack thereof). These are topics that have at least been mentioned previously that also have a significant evidentiary component (in my opinion, anyway). Ernie can suggest others, of course.

In short, my answers to (1), (2) and (3) are "no", "no" and "not really". To (4), I would have to say that the level of confidence I would accept would depend on the expected consequences of (dis)belief. There is something of a circular relationship there because the expected consequences depend on what I believe in the first place, but not in the most straightforward way. I do not currently believe in eternal consequences for (dis)belief, but based on that belief I do not have a correspondingly low standard of evidence. Rather, I suppose you could say I have a meta-belief that assertions vastly different from my current beliefs require correspondingly strong evidence, and eternal damnation is vastly different from "death is the end".

If you flip that around and say (as I did when I still believed) that "I currently believe in eternal damnation for disbelief, so the standard of evidence required for me to give up my belief is very high", I would quite understand your position. It is a very difficult change to contemplate. But I hope people will understand if I claim that the psychological tension that this creates is part of the harm done by Christian belief.

Getting back to answering (4), the justification of Christianity that I require will be rather high, similar to what is expected for scientific theories or well-established historical events. The comparison to personal relationships fails for me. Perhaps I am missing Ernie's point, but as I see it, belief in Christianity depends on the veracity of various historical assertions and I fail to see how that compares to the knowledge we have about our personal relationships.

Ernie, how would you answer (4)? How would you state your fundamental reasons for belief? (I think I have an idea from what has gone before, but repeating or verifying would be helpful at this point.)

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