Religious beliefs, as a general rule, aren’t based on evidence.
I have little doubt that my fellow nonbelievers will agree without reservation, and equally little doubt that religious believers will call me arrogant and uninformed for so sweepingly dismissing the basis of their beliefs. But that’s not what I’m trying to say. By this statement, I’m not referring to the question of whether solid evidence underlies the tenets of religion (although I trust I’ve made my views on that issue known). I’m referring to something different: the question of how people become theists in the first place.
It may be that there are people who became believers after dispassionately examining a variety of world religions, deciding which one was best supported by the evidence, and choosing to join that one. It may be that there are such people; I’ve never met them. Instead, the vast majority of believers of my acquaintance had their beliefs chosen for them at a very early age, and were taught to follow those beliefs without skepticism or doubt. (My college friend John, whom I wrote about in 2006 in “A Seriously Warped Moral Compass“, told me with pride that he became a Christian at the age of five.) A relatively smaller number converted later in life, but again, I find that in the overwhelming majority of cases that decision was made for reasons other than a critical comparison of the options.
I bring this up because I recently came across an astonishing debate, one that clearly outlines what I think are the two major strands of thought competing in modern theism. This debate took place on a now-defunct evangelical Christian blog, Evangelutionist, in a thread titled “The YEC-Christianity Conflation” [link fixed --Ebonmuse]. “YEC” is an acronym for “young-earth creationism”, and the debate was over the issue of whether belief in a literal six-day creation and a 6,000-year-old cosmos is theologically necessary to be a Christian. The author, Touchstone, took the negative, but mattpowell, a commenter holding an opposite view, soon showed up.
I really recommend reading the whole comment thread, but to get a flavor of it, here are some highlights:
I don’t hold YEC doctrine in high esteem at all. I was raised in a YEC home, taught in a YEC church, and pushed to the limits of my faith when I finally reached the real world and discovered how misleading and dishonest the PR campaign for young earth creationism is.
It’s not YEC per se that’s being conflated with orthodox Christianity. It is obedience to Scripture that is.
…when you take theories of the age of things, interpretations of physical data that you have never seen, and use that to interpret Genesis 1, now you’re letting the ideas of men interpret Scripture instead of letting Scripture interpret Scripture. There isn’t a shred of evidence anywhere in Scripture that Genesis 1 ought to be regarded as anything other than a straightforward historical account, and rather a lot to the contrary.
Exegetically, I understand Genesis 1 to be a theological treatise, the written account of an oral tradition, an inspired co-opting of ancient cosmological myths. God is asserting his sovereignty over all of creation as the Creator, and relating the moral history of man as a context for His relationship with mankind. The length of a solar day versus billions of years has *zero* bearing on the message — the moral of the story, the theology attached to the history.
Most of what we know we accept on authority, like the phases of Venus and the rings of Saturn. I accept those things on authority. None of these things affect my worldview at all. None of these things contradict anything in Scripture.
…Genesis 1 is something entirely different. Genesis 1 is presented as a historical account, an account of how God created the universe. It’s not intended to answer every detail, but it is presented as historical truth, how God actually did it.
…If it is not historical truth, what else can safely be dispensed with? Adam and Eve? Modern science denies them. The flood? Modern science says it’s impossible. Tower of Babel? The exodus? …Where does it stop?
…None of you have direct knowledge at all of the origins, age, or nature of the universe. What you have, on the one hand, are the speculations of people who hate God and His Son. Is it surprising that their arguments seem very compelling? Jesus said they would be, doing signs and wonders that would deceive, if possible, even the elect. And on the other hand, you have the testimony of the One who made the heavens and the earth. It’s by faith that you know that God made all things (Hebrews 11). And it’s also by faith (belief in authority) that you accept the speculations of modern scientists. Presented that way, I think it should be obvious which faith is superior. Let God be true, and every man a liar. I will stick to the plain teaching of Scripture.
And finally, the money quote. Here’s Matt’s closing argument:
If someone came to me with actual evidence, went back in a time machine and videotaped the disciples stealing the body, gave me DNA evidence from a crucified man in a tomb outside Jerusalem with the inscription, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, and matched that DNA evidence to the ossuary of James proving it was his brother, I would still believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I’ll tell you why- because when I read the book of John, when I read the book of James, when I read the book of Philippians or Matthew or Revelation, I hear the voice of my savior, my God. It is spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2). No evidence of man can ever change that. I hear, and I believe. I would reject the testimony of every man on earth, including my own understanding, rather than reject the testimony of God. I believe it because Scripture says it, and Scripture is the word of God.
This is a jaw-dropping quote, but there’s a crucial point buried in there. Did you catch it?
Matt Powell proclaims that he believes in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible, including a 6,000-year-old universe, because to do anything less is to submit the Bible to tests of verification by non-Christian scientists, who are fallen and sinful, who hate God and are motivated by Satan. To allow this, he says, would be the first step in a process that would steadily chip away at the doctrines of Christianity until its central doctrine, the resurrection of Jesus, went up in smoke. To prevent this, we must trust in God and believe that every word of the Bible, from start to finish, is literally true. Only this firm stand can give rise to a solid rock of faith, rather than one that will steadily be eroded by every new wave of secular thought until it’s eroded away altogether.
Matt isn’t the only one who holds this viewpoint. Some very prominent Christian intellectuals say exactly the same; some of them are quoted in my essay “Thoughts in Captivity“. Among them is one of the most prolific and highly-regarded apologists for modern Christianity, William Lane Craig – who, if this account is true, asserted that he, too, would continue to believe in Christianity even in the time machine scenario discussed above. Craig has stated that he knows Christianity to be true via the “self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit“.
So what is the crucial point in Matt’s argument? What is the flaw in the foundation upon which his entire theology rests? It’s this:
…when I read the book of John, when I read the book of James, when I read the book of Philippians or Matthew or Revelation, I hear the voice of my savior, my God. It is spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2). No evidence of man can ever change that. I hear, and I believe.
I hear – the key pronoun being “I”. Matt says that he believes the Bible is infallible, but in fact, what he really believes is that he himself is infallible. He has decided that his interpretations, his opinions, his beliefs are the ones that are perfect and immune to error. The same can be said of William Lane Craig and of every other theist who uses this argument.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that the Bible was the infallible word of God. Even if that were the case, how could we recognize it as such? There is no way to answer this question that does not also assume the speaker’s own infallibility. Even if we believe a book to be infallible, rationally we must always recognize the possibility that we are not infallible, and that we could be mistaken about that belief. You may believe a text is infallible and be mistaken; you may believe you hear the word of God and be wrong. We are inextricably enmeshed in the fact of our own fallibility, and we cannot rise above that. We have no way to view the world that is immune to making mistakes.
That is why all knowledge is, and must be, provisional. That isn’t to say that we can never know anything, or that we cannot have a great deal of confidence in our beliefs. But we must always grant the possibility, no matter how small it is, that we might be mistaken about what we believe. Theists who refuse to grant this assume that the strength of their conviction is a completely reliable guide to the true nature of objective reality. This is a self-pleasing delusion – it always has been and always will be. What’s more, it’s monstrously arrogant. Who are you, a human being, to claim that your feelings define reality? Who are you to claim you understand the true nature of the universe so completely that you will not countenance even the possibility of error?
Touchstone’s original post quotes a believer who worries, once we start questioning, where the slippery slope will end:
Yet, how can one know anything for sure about Jesus if the Bible that reveals him is wrong often or even from time to time. Is the Virgin Birth wrong? Is Jesus both God and man, or is that wrong? What about the Trinity? All such doctrines are attacked by secularists and non-believers as much as the Young Earth doctrine, why not jettison those as well? And if not, why not? How can you know what is right and what is wrong in the Bible?
Doubtless that is a serious problem for Christians. But deciding to abandon those doubts and trust in inerrancy is not a solution to the problem: it is a refusal to face the problem. Proclaiming yourself and your beliefs to be perfectly free of error is a doomed and desperate rear-guard action against a pattern of critical inquiry that has toppled one ancient superstition after another. The theologians of past ages, too, sought to proclaim themselves infallible, as Carl Sagan reminds us in The Demon-Haunted World:
“The giving up of witchcraft,” said John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, “is in effect the giving up of the Bible.” (p.119)
But Wesley’s pretensions of infallibility did not stop the world from marching on and revealing his beliefs, with the passage of time, to be ridiculous and pernicious superstition. We have no reason to believe that our own future has any kinder a fate in store for those who follow the latest iteration of this strategy.