A Good Metaphor For Evaluating Faith Claims


Don’t ask me why (really), but I sort of ended up reading a few New Atheist polemics. Lent is over, so should self-mortification be.

Anyway, the problem with New Atheism is that, before the God-argument, there is an epistemological argument. How can we know things, how can we investigate claims?

Of course, the Ur-New Atheist framework is the framework of experimental science. Never mind that this framework, great though it is, is only suitable for a specific and narrow set of claims, and that it’s literally impossible to be a human being and only have experimental science as an epistemological framework (experimental science can’t tell you that you exist, nor anything else; and in fact, it is based on a non-scientific theory of knowledge which must be taken, literally, on faith).

Anyway–this is basic stuff, but the problem with someone who keeps screaming “But science!” is to sort-of explain to them what kind of framework is needed there.

And I’ve now hit upon what I think is a very useful metaphor: the detective mystery.

Like the scientist, the detective starts with empirical evidence. But unlike the scientist, the detective can’t do repeated experiments. So she has to make use of all means available to her. Like more fuzzy forms of knowledge, like eyewitness accounts (which might be trustworthy, or not–but in any case you have to use them, even if to ultimately reject them, but you can’t just say “Well eyewitnesses have no value!”). Like reason, and abstract reasoning. And also intuition. And, at the end, there is always a leap of faith.

The path to faith is also like a detective mystery in the sense that each clue, by itself, is not dispositive. But in any good murder mystery, the clues start adding up (some must be discarded, some acquire new meaning), so that even though each clue by itself does not lead to a solution, all of them put together give you the answer.

And just like in a murder, it is absolutely literally impossible to prove that Colonel Mustard did it. But it is also very possible to put together enough clues that one nevertheless knows (and not just supposes) that he did it–as the phrase has it, “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

Thus it is with Aquinas’ quinque viae, and the evidence for the resurrection accounts being eyewitness accounts, and the annoyingly neoplatonist bias of of all existence, and spiritual experience, and all the rest.


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  • Kasoy

    St Augustine had a very good advice to Christians on how to grow in faith. I suppose this method may also be used by non-believers to “experiment” on its efficacy.

    St Augustine said: The faithful must believe the articles of the Creed “so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe.”

    He also said: Seek not to understand in order to believe, but believe in order to understand.

    At baptism, we receive that gift of faith – a faith that does not require understanding. Faith grows as we obey God and make our hearts “purer”. Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God – “seeing” God on earth with faith.

    On the impossibility of proving God’s existence without faith.

    I said in another blog that it is truly impossible to prove God’s existence to an incorrigible atheist. Here is the logic.

    Suppose God Himself appeared before a non-believer and said “I am God.” The man will say “Prove it to me.” God will not perform all sorts of miracles – multiply bread to feed thousands, cure the lepers, those born blind, mute, lame, and raise someone from the dead. The man will say “You must be from a truly superior race of human beings from a technologically advance world somewhere in the universe or another universe.” But wait, God said He is immortal – no beginning, no end. The man will ask the powerful being to bring him to the distant past to see if He existed in the past. Or he can ask the powerful being to bring him to the distant future to see if He still existed there.

    Question: How far into the past OR future will he need to go before he believes that that powerful being is God? Can he reach the infinite past or infinite future?

    As you said: And, at the end, there is always a leap of faith.

    But for a (incorrigibly) faithless man, it is impossible.

    • Randy Wanat

      If you care whether the things you believe are true or not, faith has no place in your epistemology.

    • Good contributions.

    • bill wald

      Yes, except that “faith” and “belief” in your essay are circular. I prefer, “The Holy Spirit communicated with my spirit. I have no idea which spirits communicate to people in other religions but that is their problem, not mine.

    • GordonHide

      As an atheist I tend to agree with this. It comes down to viewing the existence of God as so unlikely that any other explanation for any evidence presented, including a personal appearance, seems much more likely than the claim of God’s existence.

  • Galorgan

    It’s been a while since I read the God Delusion or god is Not Great, but I seem to remember the authors referring to evidence rather than proof. Perhaps my memory of that is faulty, but still it’d be nice to have actual quotes from the polemics in this article. It also seems a bit short and, well, lacking in substance compared to your normal work: appearing to strawman the new atheists, even. For instance, I’ve never heard them say “Well eyewitnesses have no value!” Instead, it’s been more along the lines of referring to research that shows eyewitness testimony is seriously flawed, but not that it has “no” value. I wish there was more meat to discuss in this article.

    • Thanks for your comment. Yeah, this post was dashed off, it’s just a short idea.

    • Kathy K-m

      You’ve never heard atheists say eyewitnesses have no value? Oh my…a great many don’t/won’t even recognize they’re dealing with eyewitness testimony (as it were) and prefer to debunk all “holy texts” as completely myth and fairytale, from start to finish. Designed solely for the purpose of oppressing women and homosexuals, molesting children, starting wars, suppressing science and, basically, bringing about the ruination of humankind.
      I am an “old” atheist, and find myself arguing with this new breed, all the time, and actually started my own Facebook Page, Atheists to Zygotes, in hopes of providing a little sanity and intelligent discourse.
      As a group, they can be a little scary. They’ve figured out snakes don’t talk and consider themselves Junior Einstein’s.
      The sad truth is, if Dawkins said the word, a lot of em could be talked into a Stalinist style “purge”.
      I’m going to share this on my Page, because I think it’s a concept worth considering.
      For some atheists, too much “meat” would just give them indigestion. 🙂

      • Galorgan

        I could find modern atheists saying all types of things just like I could find modern christians (incl. Catholics) saying all types of things. I try not to judge people via the worst of their (mostly online) representations but at least by their average (if not always their best). Do you have any samples of the “New Atheist” authors saying such things?

        • Kathy K-m

          If you go to my Facebook Page, “Atheists to Zygotes”, I posted a screen shot, about a week ago, which included the suggestion of “death camps for the religious”. I’m frequently accused of being a “fake atheist” or “not atheist enough”.
          The Page “Atheist Republic” has some interesting bloggers, usually well thought out, but the commenters are filled with hate, vitriol and utter lack of understanding.
          They see every Christian as a “young earth creationist”, impeding the march of science, and every Muslim as a child raping bomber.
          And they have over a million followers. 🙁

  • momtarkle

    Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

    A: Only one, but the light bulb has to REALLY want to change.

    Now, substitute “atheists” for “psychiatrists” and “theists” for “light bulb”.

    Now, swap “atheists” and “theists”.

    Now, ponder this: if any of those changes were made, would it be a good thing?

    Now, go ahead and insult me.

    Have an illuminated day!

  • bill wald

    There is no rational means to analyze someone else’s truth claims about God.

    There is no rational way to choose between “God” and “Always Was.” I can’t explain why I chose to “believe in” the Jewish/Christian God, assuming it is the same person.

  • You are onto something, but you should add two references to your bibliography: “Cold-Case Christianity” by J. Warner Wallace (2013) and “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” by Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona (2014). You might also benefit from checking out my blog article, “Science is wearing blinders for miracles.” http://mentiscopia.pbworks.com/w/page/74519819/Science%20is%20Wearing%20Blinders%20for%20Miracles

    • $24533877

      Read both — excellent arguments!

  • GordonHide

    The claims for the Christian God are so outlandish that I’m not surprised that alleged eye witness accounts are thought useless. Very unlikely claims require extremely strong evidence. If your neighbour tells you his favourite colour is blue, you probably believe him. If he tells you he has just turned lead into gold you probably wont without a lot more evidence.