Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Evidence? What Evidence?


While I have not brought it up for quite awhile, one the major reasons that I left Christianity was that the supposed consequences for disbelief were vastly out of proportion to the evidence available and our ability to make sense out of it. That is, at least according to some common versions of Christianity, the consequence of disbelief is eternal damnation, an unending tortuous existence. Whether this is punishment imposed by God or the natural consequence of our sinful nature, either way the only way out (we are told) is belief in Jesus as the savior of the world, the one atoning sacrifice, and so on. And yet, what reasons do we have to believe that this is true? Are those reasons so compelling that only the rebellious would disregard them? Are they so solid that those who, having heard them, deserve hell for not believing?

Some would say, perhaps, that people do not deserve hell for not believing; rather, they deserve hell because they are imperfect, sinful creatures and hell is the natural or deserved result of such a state. We should be thankful, according to this view, that God provided a way of escape. But if this is so, why did God do such a poor job of providing evidence to those for whom lack of evidence is a stumbling block? Some Christians have said that, for those who don't believe, that the evidence is not really the reason for disbelief, but this is not the case. While there are certainly people for which this is true, just as certainly there are people who have honestly searched through the evidence, found it lacking, and so did not believe. The problem is not willful rejection of compelling evidence. The problem really is lack of evidence.

The central claim of Christianity, I think it is fair to say, is that Jesus died and was raised in order to save us. (There are liberal Christians who would dispute this, but my argument here is not with them.) This, like many other important aspects of Christian belief, involves a claim about a historical event. This event would have occurred nearly two thousand years ago during a time of even greater credulity than we experience today. The only accounts of this event come from those who were neither indifferent nor skeptical, and those accounts contain clear signs of legendary development as well as purposeful embellishment from the first to the last. They were written over a span of thirty to forty years, and the earliest one was written at least thirty years after the events described.

Do we have other reasons to trust these authors? We do not know who they are. The attributions to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not come (as far as we can tell) until another fifty to one hundred years after they were written, and scholars have discovered substantial reasons to doubt them. We also know that Christian forgeries were common during this era, as attested by the number of pseudo-epigraphical gospels, epistles and apocalypses that were written during this era. But perhaps the fact that these other documents were eventually rejected by early Christians gives us reason to trust the writings that they accepted? No, for we also have excellent reasons to believe that many, perhaps even a majority, of the other New Testament books were also not written by the traditionally accepted authors. These reasons are not simple guesses, but the result of years of careful study by scholars (usually Christian scholars) who examine the theological themes, language usage, external references and evident historical context to make their assessments. There is still debate over some cases, of course, but in other cases the evidence is strong and the agreement substantial.

The same sorts of evaluations place substantial portions of the Old Testament in doubt. This is not to say that the books of the Old Testament are entirely fictional. Many of the historical events described have some support from archeology and other historical sources, and in other cases we might accept the Biblical descriptions as prima facie evidence of their historicity or at least, of some kernel of historical truth. But yet, there remain significant portions that appear mythical or legendary. We have comparable writings from other ancient sources, but when these other sources describe the intervention of gods in the world, we accept that they are mythological. We can see instances where the Hebrew authors have borrowed concepts from the belief systems of their neighbors and incorporated those concepts into their own. (Examples include the Ugaritic mythology and the dualism derived from Zoroastrianism.) Do we have good reasons, then, to believe the Hebrew accounts but not the others?

Perhaps we should depend on the fact that Christian beliefs have persisted for two thousand years, and Judaism for another thousand before that? Other belief systems have survived for comparable lengths of time. Christianity may be better represented in the world today, but I think a strong argument can be made that this representation can be attributed to the technological and economic growth and subsequent imperialism by European nations where Christianity happened to be dominant. Some would say that this technological and economic growth itself was dependent on Christianity, but this is hardly an uncontroversial claim, especially considering Christianity's prominence during the Western civilization's decline during the second half the of the first millennium.

What about the subjective experience of Christians? Can we not look to the improvement in the lives of believers as evidence to the truth of their beliefs? Unfortunately, similar claims of improvement can be found among the adherents of other belief systems, systems that contradict the claims of Christianity. What proves too much proves nothing at all. Additionally, when we actually look at sociological research for evidence of this improvement, the results are remarkably ambiguous, and occasionally the reverse of what is claimed. If there is evidence to be found here, right now the signal is buried in the noise.

Can we look to philosophy? Is God a logical necessity? Christians have proposed ontological arguments, the teleological arguments, moral arguments, transcendental arguments, even pragmatic arguments. None have been successful. Of course, philosophical arguments have also failed to disprove the existence of God. We must look elsewhere.

What about science? So far, science has not detected God, and I say that only partly in jest. Science has been our most reliable method of learning about the reality we inhabit, and yet we cannot look to science for direct observational evidence of God. For the most part, science has been busy explaining those aspects of the natural world that were previously thought to be dependent on God. Theists are holding out in the shelter of the Big Bang, claiming that a beginning to the universe must indicate a First Cause, an Unmoved Mover. Even supposing this might eventually turn out to be the case, given the general retreat of religious claims before the advances of science, it hardly seems reasonable to depend on our current ignorance about events so remote from us in time and outside our experience for evidence about something even more remote from our observational capabilities.

In the face of this startling lack of evidence, and sometimes contrary evidence, we are told that the consequence for disbelief is eternal hellfire. God loves us and wants the best for us, of course, but the evidence we have was the best he could do? Is there a good reason for him to withhold better evidence from us?

It would infringe on our free will, some say. Nonsense. Twice nonsense. First, because some of these same people will point to the amazing signs and prophecies performed and fulfilled by Jesus (we are told) as evidence of his divinity. If you believe that if God supplied better evidence he would infringe on our free will, but you also believe he performed those signs, then you believe he already did infringe on the free will of those who saw the signs. Why not again? And second, how does additional information infringe on anybody's free will anyway? Does learning something or observing something infringe on your will? If anything, it empowers you to make better choices. If anything, among those who would freely choose to believe if there were better evidence, withholding that evidence is what infringes on free will.

Or should we just believe without evidence? It's a faith thing, right? But how do you choose what to believe on faith? Why this and not something else? If there are no reasons to believe this one thing instead of something else, well, then there are no reasons to believe this one thing instead of something else. No, it has to come back to reasons, and I mean reasons in the sense of evidence, not in the sense of consequences — like the threat of hell.

When all is said and done, the evidence just is not there. If we were asked to believe a fairly ordinary thing with insubstantial consequences, perhaps we might believe it on the evidence we have. Instead, we are asked to believe an exceptional thing with almost inconceivable consequences. A good God would not leave us in this situation. Perhaps God does not exist after all. Perhaps he is not good. Perhaps (and some Christians do believe this), perhaps the whole hell thing was a bit of a mistake. Something has to give.

Before I conclude, I have to mention the state of Christian apologetics. The goal of apologetics is, I suppose, to defend the faith. In this, I suppose it has been successful, but not due to the evidence or arguments offered. They are successful because they give people who already believe the comfortable illusion that the faith has been defended. Some of the best examples of this are Lee Strobel's books, like "The Case for Christ" and "The Case for Easter". His shtick is to play the role of an "investigative journalist" and interview various Christian scholars, but I say "play the role" quite purposefully, because he accepts nearly everything they say at face value, even when one person contradicts another. To my knowledge, he never interviews anyone who substantially disagrees with his thesis and he never challenges anyone that agrees. Similar problems exist in other popular apologetic works. They defend their arguments from strawmen. They simply omit facts that are inconvenient to their case. They repeat anecdotes in support of their case that have no basis in fact. But for those readers that are hearing just what they expect, who trust their Christian authorities to tell them the truth, who would never consider reading anything that would actually challenge their beliefs, those readers are comforted by what they read and it seems good to them. I mean, who has time to look into it themselves? Best just to leave that to the experts. And so it goes.

Not every Christian apologist is like that, and not every Christian reader is like that. But some are. Just read the comments on Amazon.com for Lee Strobel's books...


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