Christians and atheists have many major points of disagreement, and these often rest on differing ways of evaluating evidence. How do we evaluate ancient miracle claims? Or modern miracle claims? Or claims of fulfilled prophecy? Or claims of contradictions in the Bible?
Let’s take the Levitical laws against homosexuality as an example. The Christian may argue that Leviticus 18:22 is pretty clear: “You must not have sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman; it is an abomination.”
But the Levitical laws have been dismissed by the sacrifice of Jesus. Kosher food laws, animal sacrifices, prohibitions against mixed fabrics and all that are gone. Why keep this one?
And so goes the argument, back and forth, getting nowhere.
If I may suggest a solution …
Bias enters science as well, and science has a response that we can use: the blinded scientific trial.
For example, the 2006 Templeton prayer study was a blinded trial. The people offering prayers didn’t know the patients they were praying for, and patients were divided into three categories: not prayed for, prayed for (but didn’t know it), and prayed for (and knew it).
Let’s extend the blinded trial into the area of everyday apologetic arguments.
Imagine that an atheist charges a Christian with bias, stating that the Christian is guilty of special pleading (having a special rule or exception just for his position). The charge might be that the Christian labels as fulfilled prophecy a claim in the Bible, though they’d reject an equivalent claim from another religion. Or that a modern-day Hindu or Muslim miracle is disadvantaged compared to its Christian counterpart. Or that the Noah flood story is assumed to be history while the Gilgamesh flood story is labeled mythology.
Here’s how the blinded trial would work.
1. The Christian and atheist agree on the claim. To take the case given above, the claim might be, “The rejection of homosexuality in Leviticus is binding on the Christian today.”
2. Since it was his claim, the Christian proposes the rules for evaluating the evidence, defines terms (“objective,” for example), and identifies the relevant evidence (the NIV version of the Old Testament, for example).
3. The rules are evaluated by the atheist for ambiguity and bias. A rule such as “but let’s retain all the anti-gay stuff” would be an obvious example of a biased rule.
4. If the atheist isn’t satisfied with the proposed rules, he can offer them. It doesn’t matter who proposes the rules; it only matters that everyone agrees that the rules are clear and fair. If there is no agreement after several rounds, then the worldviews of these two antagonists may be so incompatible that discussion is pointless. That, too, would be a victory of sorts, because it would at least identify that nonoverlapping worldviews are the problem.
A third party acceptable to everyone may not be hard to find, at least in principle. Sure, the Christian might want a Christian and the atheist an atheist, but what about a religious non-Christian? The Christian couldn’t object that this judge had an anti-supernatural bias, and the atheist couldn’t object to Christian presuppositions.
Submitting the issue to an actual person for evaluation could be as simple as finding a Hindu blogger or a leader in a local mosque and emailing the problem with the title, “Could you settle a religious question for me?” Nevertheless, I see submitting the problem to an actual person for evaluation as mostly a thought experiment. Instead, I propose a less formal final step for most situations:
5′. The two antagonists work through the problem themselves. No, they’re not guaranteed to reach a common understanding (and perhaps this isn’t even likely), but simply going through this process with the agreed-to rules may clarify the issue so that a point of conflict dissolves away. Maybe the two parties didn’t realize that they were using a term differently, for example. Or maybe imagining the harsh light of an objective outsider on these questions erodes one party’s certainty.
This process is symmetric, and it would apply to an atheist claim as well as a Christian claim. Nevertheless, with the burden of proof typically on the Christian’s shoulders, the blinded trial would in practice be applied mostly to Christian claims.
If Christians want to just believe, that’s fine. But if they want to play in the arena of evidence, this is a way to ensure that everyone’s playing fair.
everything that surrounds you is a kind of medicine
that helps you refine your conduct,
yet you are unaware of it.
In pleasant situations,
you are faced with weapons that will tear you apart,
yet you do not realize it.
— Huanchu Daoren
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/26/13.)
Image credit: Dan Backman, flickr, CC