The Bible vs. The Facts?

I am a Christian. I’m also a Baptist and we Baptists aren’t big on creeds. That’s not because we necessarily disagree with the substance of those creeds, just that we don’t agree with the idea that any authority should be permitted to compel or require every individual to assent to any given formulation of their faith. It’s the same Baptist principle of “soul freedom” that led Baptists to fight for the separation of church and state here in America.

But having made that anti-creedal Baptist caveat, the historic creeds of the Christian faith are a useful summary of what most, if not all, of us Christians believe and have believed over the centuries. Here, for example, are the words of the Nicene Creed, something most of us Christians have been reciting since 381 CE:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Amen.

I’ve reproduced that here in order to point out one particular characteristic of its many affirmations: None of them is falsifiable.

“We believe,” we say, because this is what we believe, but we cannot prove that it is true. We are stating our faith — “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That conviction is firm, but it does not claim or require the certainty that only proof can supply. That is what separates faith from the certainty of fact.

What separates faith from folly is this: It cannot be disproved either.

Again I can’t avoid Wendell Berry’s indispensable distinction between religion and superstition. Religion, Berry says, echoing that passage from the book of Hebrews just cited above, is faith in that which cannot be proved. Superstition, he says, is belief in that which can be — and has been — disproved.

The creed quoted above is a religious declaration, but not a superstitious one. It affirms that “we believe” to be true a host of things that neither we nor anyone else can prove to be true. But nowhere does it affirm that “we believe” to be true anything that we or anyone else can prove, or has proved, to be false.

Christianity is a religion, not a superstition. My belief that Jesus Christ was God incarnate and rose again from the dead may be viewed skeptically, and it may be rejected by skeptics due to a lack of supporting evidence. But unlike, say, the belief that the moon landing was a hoax, it cannot be rejected on the basis of evidence to the contrary. Moon-landing denialism, unlike the faith expressed in the Nicene Creed, is a superstition. It can be and has been disproved.

What rankles me about Al Mohler’s creationist shtick is that he wants to equate “biblical orthodoxy” with superstition.

Not satisfied with the brevity of the Nicene Creed, Mohler adds to it a litany of further proclamations that he insists — in distinctly un-Baptist fashion* — must be affirmed as non-negotiable for all real, true Christians. But unlike the religious affirmations of that creed, the additions Mohler demands include tenets that are demonstrably falsifiable.

It’s likely you’ve noticed that I find that infuriating.

Not for any of the reasons Mohler always goes on about. He’s forever accusing Christians who refuse to deny science of chasing after “respectability” or “intellectual vanity.” That’s got nothing to do with it.

It’s infuriating because I’ve seen what it does to people. I’ve seen too many of its victims not to be furious with it.

When Christian teachers like Mohler insist that the non-negotiable tenets of the faith include beliefs that can be and have been proven false, they set their followers up for inexorable crisis and calamity. It turns Christians into ex-Christians with industrial efficiency.

“Test everything,” the apostle Paul wrote. “Hold on to the good.”

But what Mohler is teaching is, essentially, don’t test anything, and hold on to whatever we tell you.

“This stuff is unavoidable,” says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. “Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. …”

“If so, that’s simply the price we’ll have to pay,” says Southern Baptist seminary’s Albert Mohler.

The problem with sticking your head in the sand is that you can’t see and you can’t breathe. Eventually you’ll come up for air and open your eyes and you’ll wind up catching a glimpse of whatever it was you were trying not to see.

And when that happens, it causes people to lose their faith. Not because their faith was weak and not because they were vainly chasing intellectual acclaim, but because Al Mohler or someone like him had taught them that belief in Jesus Christ was indivisible from some other belief that could not withstand testing. Taught to regard such things as inseparable, once they encounter the evidence disproving that superstition, they do as they were taught and jettison belief in Christ as well. They were taught that their faith must be bound up with folderol. And when that folderol falls apart — as folderol always will — it takes their faith with it.

When religion is reduced to superstition, a crisis of faith becomes inevitable. You can read the stories of those crises in the testimonies of the wounded souls profiled in Stefan Ulstein’s Growing Up Fundamentalist. You can measure the effect of this reduction to superstition at any of the alumni reunions held each year at Bob Jones University. (“Has anyone heard from Jim?” “Oh, poor guy, he accidentally picked up a copy of Smithsonian magazine at the dentist’s office and his faith shattered into a million pieces. He won’t be back this year.”) Richard Dawkins hasn’t produced a fraction of the ex-believers that Bob Jones churns out every year.

By declaring falsifiable beliefs to be central tenets of Christianity, Mohler warps our faith into a superstition. That renders it something that can be, and will be, disproved, dismissed and abandoned.

And superstition ought to be dismissed and abandoned — because it’s not true.

It’s strange even to have to say this, but apparently it needs to be said: Believing things that aren’t true is not good.

And it’s not good for a host of reasons — ethical, theological, practical, effectual — that have nothing to do with a desire for respectability or intellectual vanity. If those are really the only reasons Mohler can imagine for wanting not to believe in something that isn’t true then I’m not sure how to begin convincing him otherwise.

I suppose I could understand Mohler better if he seemed to recognize the high stakes of this game he’s playing. If he showed a bit more urgency in acknowledging that The Bible vs. The Facts is not a tenable position to try to sustain.

I’ve known many fundamentalists who believe, as Mohler believes, that the facts as established by sound science are incompatible with what they believe the Bible teaches. Like Mohler, they choose to side with the Bible, but they cling, white-knuckled, to the hope that some day scientists will find another set of facts — some new, revolutionary discovery that will show they had been mistaken and that the Bible, as these fundamentalists understood it, hadn’t really been disproved after all. Theirs is a desperate hope, but for them it’s a necessary one — it’s the only way they can see out of the bind they have created for themselves by elevating their own dubious interpretations of the Bible to equal status with God on high.

I’ve also known many more fundamentalists who shared Mohler’s The Bible vs. The Facts framework and who therefore have declared war on science in just the same way that the moon-landing denialists have declared war on NASA. They latch onto the arcane fantasies of Ken Ham and the Discovery Institute, ferociously promoting the latest iterations of credulous urban legends supposedly “debunking” the grand hoax of science. They speak in sinister tones of a shadowy scientific “conspiracy.” The media is in on it too, they say. And the libraries. And the Internets.

Neither of those responses is a healthy one, but at least those responses recognize what is at stake for them due to their belief — mistaken and self-inflicted — that The Bible and The Facts are incompatible.

Mohler apparently shares that belief, yet he doesn’t share the urgency of either of those responses. He seems almost complacent about his assertion that his doctrines cannot be reconciled with the proven facts of science. I can understand the deniers choice to live in denial. And I can understand and almost even admire the fretful, desperate hope of those longing for a scientific revolution that might reinstate the validity of their beliefs. But Mohler’s response — or, rather, lack of a response — just baffles me.

If incontrovertible science disproves what he declares to be doctrine, then he says he will side with the doctrine. And that is that.

But how do you …? I mean, how can you …? But if …?

Just baffled.

“But … but … but when the facts disprove what you believe, that means you’re wrong,” I splutter.

Very well, then, Mohler says. “That’s simply the price we’ll have to pay.” And if people like you want to be real, true Christians, he says, then you ought to be wrong too.

So I surrender. I’m not giving up the argument, mind you, but if wrong and right and true and false are all going to be used interchangeably, then I’m mystified as to how to continue it.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* I had some fun a few years ago with a post on this — “Can we please stop calling them ‘Baptists’ now?” — in which I noted that:

The “statement of faith” has replaced the creeds in most evangelical churches, and these statements are enforced with a dogmatism rivaling that of Athanasius. … The Southern Baptist Seminary’s … “Abstract of Principles” is 1,230 words long — more than 10 times as long as the Apostle’s Creed.”

But that AofP, at least, does not explicitly require a belief in a “historical” Adam and Eve, or explicitly call for a rejection of genomic science.

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  • Lunch Meat

    Proving that one doesn’t have to believe the Nicene Creed to be a Christian is trivial. As someone has already stated, the creed wasn’t even around for the first few hundred years of Christianity. If you came up to one of the people who had just been baptized at Pentecost after hearing one sermon, and asked them what they now “believed” (as if intellectual assent were the most important thing about Christianity), would any of them have independently come up with that particular creed? Or, if you had shown it to them, would they agree with it automatically, or would they pick and choose and debate? But would that make them not “Christian” in some essential, platonic-ideal-of-a-Christian sense? Of course not.

    Even Paul might not have accepted the creed. The NT doesn’t ever use the word “trinity,” and there’s no proof that any of the writers would have accepted the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

    Oh, and can one be not a Christian while believing the Creed? Of course. “Even the demons believe.” Also, it is perfectly possible to believe in the God described in the Bible, and believe that that deity is evil.

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

     Proving that one doesn’t have to believe the Nicene Creed to be a
    Christian is trivial. As someone has already stated, the creed wasn’t
    even around for the first few hundred years of Christianity.

    In fact, virtually every single word of the creed is an attempt to scotch one or other theological dispute of the second, third or fourth century by defining what Christians were required to believe and what you could declare them heretics for arguing against. The big one of course was Arianism vs. Trinitarianism, but there are dozens of other disputes hidden in there, from the word used for “of one being (substance)”, the use of “begotten not created”, and so on.

  • Anonymous

    To butt in:

    FangsFirst: “The objective fact does not really come into play (and claims to the
    contrary on either part are generally without firm basis), there is only
    the belief of what the factual reality seems to be/looks like/feels
    like, whatever SUBJECTIVE basis there is.”

    what do you mean here?  Most atheists/agnostics will have no problem agreeing that people can have religious experiences and a belief in God even if there’s no God, but most people who make statements of belief aren’t just asserting something about how they feel.  When I say that “I believe there’s a computer in front of me”, I don’t mean to be understood as only communicating that I have a subjective experience of a computer which may or may not have anything to do with what others can experience.  I’m saying that I think it is true that “there is a computer in front of me”.  Most people who I have known to use the phrase “I believe in God/Jesus” meant to communicate that they thought that God/Jesus actually existed for everyone, “objectively”.  If someone says “I believe in God” and I reply “I don’t believe in God”, pretty much everyone understands that there’s a disagreement, which wouldn’t be the case if those statements only meant something about our individual internal mental states.

    Edit: Obviously there’s more to “belief in” God than just “belief that” God, but “belief that” is almost always part of it.

  • Tonio

    When I say that “I believe there’s a computer in front of me”, I don’t
    mean to be understood as only communicating that I have a subjective
    experience of a computer which may or may not have anything to do with
    what others can experience.  I’m saying that I think it is true that
    “there is a computer in front of me”.

    That’s the point I was trying to make about the words “belief” and “believe.”

  • FangsFirst

    @Gotchaye:disqus
    Well, the rest of the paragraph (or whatever I can call that chunk of words) was addressing that, basically (however poorly). Yes, someone says their belief is an objective reality for everyone, or rather, believes it is (…see what I mean?) but there is no OBJECTIVE basis for it. It’s a belief; nothing more, nothing less. So, if I say “I believe there is a computer in front of you,” it’s based on a shared perception of: 1) what a computer is, 2) how to determine a computer is in front of you. These are specific, defined external stimuli. We agree on what a computer is and how to experience it, so there is our objective basis (or at least a collectively agreed one). “I believe God is all around you,” doesn’t do an awful lot, because neither of us would agree on what God is (uh, in particular, I get the impression neither of us has any horse in that race, in fact), nor how to describe or experience that.

    @1cfd07d71c70392c27d26165e23b0cf2:disqus
    I might see your point if we were talking about propositions where there
    is no fact to be determined, such as whether Eric Clapton or Jimi
    Hendrix is the greatest rock guitarist.

    Realistically, it IS just that subjective. My experience of Clapton’s playing versus Hendrix’s* is different from yours, my definition of “greatest” is also different. There’s no common ground to establish exactly how to define what we are talking about objectively. What is “better” guitar playing? If it’s something as nebulous as more “emotionally appealing,” what emotion? Any emotion? Is it worth more if it appeals equally to your emotions and mine, but it’s more getting me on my feet and you to relax and be soothed at “equal levels”? What the hell are equal levels of different emotions/responses?

    by the same token: What is God? What is the experience of God? How does one experience God? Someone tells me, “I experience God through the beauty of the world around me.” Are you saying I can actually ARGUE this? They see this as evidence and, quite honestly, there is NO ARGUMENT against it.
    Yeah, there are exceptions (I was lazily trying to encompass this by referring to options like Creationism, but did intend it to be all-encompassing for various bits and pieces that can be spoken to) but overall the actual “experience” of God means that, for the person who experiences it, there is personal (subjective) confirmation that confirms an objective truth. If you lack this experience (like I do) you have neither subjective nor objective confirmation, but lack the grounds to somehow “confirm” the non-existence of their experience, nor define the basis for it.

    No, it is not as simple as “this is my opinion and that is yours,” but it amounts to the same end result.

    Although this is probably not your intention, stating the issue that way
    implies that claims about gods are in some sort of safe zone from
    science, where science needs to respect its own boundaries. I would turn
    the concept around to say that if a proposition can’t be tested that
    way, then it’s indistinguishable from speculation. Meaning that the problem is not with science but with the proposition.

    Ugh. See Stephen Jay Gould–atheist, scientist–on “Nonoverlapping Magisteria.”

    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html

    The National Academy of Sciences agrees. Immanuel Kant put forth similar claims.

    The arguments coming from camps like Dawkins basically say, “That’s all well and good, but Creationism!”
    Which I already agreed is an exception (and Gould himself notes is an inevitability).

    Basically, you are operating on the assumption that science ABSOLUTELY can and will test everything (despite previously agreeing with me that this is a tenuous claim at best). It’s essentially a tautology: “This proposition is a problem because its inability to be examined by science makes it unable to be examined by science.”
    WHY is the fact that science cannot address it a flaw in the proposition for any reason other than its ability for science to address it?

    It’s not about “Don’t put your toes over my line, buddy!” (“respecting its own boundaries”) it’s about the fact that science is about the falsifiable or empirically perceptible. That’s what science IS. Things outside of that do not have “problems” just because they don’t fit within the realms of science. That’s insane. That’s establishing science as an infallible authority, which is, well, rather unscientific. You’re going right back to, “If science can’t test it, clearly it’s wrong, or needs to be rephrased so science can address it.”

    Incidentally: I am NOT anti-science. I was raised by a biologist, I’m dating another one and neither one would let such things go by. Your language is strongly suggesting that somehow I think “Science better watch its step!”
    No, I think science, pardon the personification, knows full well that it has nothing to do with–most accurately, ‘no interest in’–such questions. And, again, I’m nowhere NEAR the first person to be pointing this out.

    *Hendrix, given that pairing ;)

  • Tonio

    How does one experience God? Someone tells me, “I experience God through the beauty of the world around me.” Are you saying I can actually ARGUE this? They see this as evidence and, quite honestly, there is NO ARGUMENT against it.

    But the question here is what is behind the subjective experiences, what actually exists outside of the human experience, whether it’s a being or a force, whether it has roots in the brain, or whether it’s something else entirely. (I’m not asking the question of you or anyone else here.) You and I can have different experiences of listening to Clapton, but no one questions that the man exists. Another way to phrase the question is, what would constitute “God” if humans didn’t exist?

    You’re going right back to, “If science can’t test it, clearly it’s wrong, or needs to be rephrased so science can address it.”

    No, I’m saying that if science can’t test it, we can’t know if it’s right or wrong, so the most prudent course is to leave it as unknown.

    The arguments coming from camps like Dawkins basically say, “That’s all well and good, but Creationism!”

    He has a point – any religion or believer that claims its gods or realms exist as objective fact is making a claim of fact. (Again, some do and some do not.) That may not necessarily be intruding into the realm of science, but it’s not subjective, either. Instead of thinking of realms as science versus religion, I think of these as fact versus value.

    WHY is the fact that science cannot address it a flaw in the proposition for any reason other than its ability for science to address it?

    Because I want to know what is true and factual apart from anyone’s subjective experience, including my own. I don’t expect anyone to agree with my desire for that.

  • hapax

    I’m saying that if science can’t test it, we can’t know if it’s right
    or wrong, so the most prudent course is to leave it as unknown.

    “Most prudent course”?  What on earth does that even MEAN?

    Right there, you have made a personal, subjective, untestable claim, exactly on par with leaving out a bowl of milk each night so the house-elves continue “to bless” the house-dwellers.

    But you are placing such a high negative value on the possibility of being factually wrong that I would find literally paralyzing if it were applied consistently.

    “Science” can’t test a whole bunch of things until after they happen: whether my spouse will remain faithful to me, whether my kids will grow up to be happy and fulfilled, whether or not I’ll like those “Hawaiian fajitas” on the menu*.

    That’s for a lot of reasons, but mostly because  the answers depend upon subjective interpretations of personal states, and because statistics can have awesomely accurate predictive powers about large enough groups, they’re crap for giving definitive answers for individuals, especially when those individuals are greatly influenced by a large number of random factors.**

    But — speaking only for myself — I’m not worried about being wrong.  I’m perfectly comfortable with the possibility that I might be wrong.  Indeed, I’m absolutely certain that my ideas about the Divine are indeed wrong, probably laughably wrong.

    I’d be sad and angry and disappointed, in fact, if they were *right*.  If something like the Source and Sustainer and Final Destination of All That Is were something that  in fact could be apprehended by a puny mind like mine, or Mohler’s, or could be fully encompassed in a book that fits into my front shirt pocket.

    What I care about is whether those ideas work.  And, for me, so far they have.  They have helped me understand experiences that would otherwise be puzzling.  They have given me a framework for seeing the universe, making decisions, and communicating my joys, doubts, and fears with others.  They have not prevented me from accepting any of the products of human reason and creativity that I find helpful or just cool, and have given me additional motivations to support and understand and rejoice in these discoveries.

    “Prudence”, to me, dictates that I keep on the path that has been most fruitful for me, and leave worrying about being “right” or “wrong” to the cosmic test-graders after I’m dead.

    ——–

    *Okay, that last one’s a stretch.  Science might not have an answer for that, but I’m absolutely convinced that the right answer is “Ewwww, NO!”

    **one of the reasons that “scientific” rebuttals of miracles have zero traction with believers.  When told, e.g., that “there is no evidence that any person truly dead has ever come back to life”, the believer responds “Well, DUH!  That’s why we call it a MIRACLE!”

  • Anonymous

    “Science” can’t test a whole bunch of things until after they happen: whether my spouse will remain faithful to me, whether my kids will grow up to be happy and fulfilled, whether or not I’ll like those “Hawaiian fajitas” on the menu*.
    What? All of those are open to empirical tests, the kind of tests that you perform every day? You have a very good idea of whether you’d like the fajita’s based on your previous experiences with such foodstuffs. You have a justified belief that your kids are more likely to grow up happy and fulfilled if you treat them lovingly and kindly rather than keeping them in a cupboard under the stairs. You have an expectation that your spouse will/will not be faithful based on past experience of the type of person they are, but it’s not hard to imagine evidence that would cause you to revise that belief (perhaps he has the misfortune to suffer brain damage that impairs his ability to control his impulses to the extent that he is unable to keep most of his promises on other matters).

    You’re not certain about any of those, but *all uncertainties aren’t equal*. Just ask a gambler.

  • hapax

    @malpollyon:  I chose those examples specifically because those qualities (“faithful”, “happy and fulfilled”, “like”) are NOT empirically testable;  they are subjective and context-dependent, and often only understood after the fact (e.g.,”I always thought that my son would have to have a good paying job / my daughter would have to be married stay at home mother to be happy and fulfilled, but now I see that they have got much more out of being a Peace Corps volunteer / single corporate CEO!”)  That doesn’t mean that they are not real, and important.

    You’re not certain about any of those, but *all uncertainties aren’t equal*. Just ask a gambler.

    And any successful gambler will tell you that knowing that the outcomes of the last ten thousand coin flips won’t tell you much about the odds of the next one being heads or tails. 

    But most *unsuccessful* gamblers are unsuccessful precisely because they rely on rules governing large amounts of data to predict specific occurrences:  “I’ve lost money on the last ten hands, odds are I’ve GOT to get a good hand in the next round…”

  • hapax

    @malpollyon:  I chose those examples specifically because those qualities (“faithful”, “happy and fulfilled”, “like”) are NOT empirically testable;  they are subjective and context-dependent, and often only understood after the fact (e.g.,”I always thought that my son would have to have a good paying job / my daughter would have to be married stay at home mother to be happy and fulfilled, but now I see that they have got much more out of being a Peace Corps volunteer / single corporate CEO!”)  That doesn’t mean that they are not real, and important.

    You’re not certain about any of those, but *all uncertainties aren’t equal*. Just ask a gambler.

    And any successful gambler will tell you that knowing that the outcomes of the last ten thousand coin flips won’t tell you much about the odds of the next one being heads or tails. 

    But most *unsuccessful* gamblers are unsuccessful precisely because they rely on rules governing large amounts of data to predict specific occurrences:  “I’ve lost money on the last ten hands, odds are I’ve GOT to get a good hand in the next round…”

  • Anonymous

    Quick question – You avoided using the word in the body of your post, but would you say that you “believe” your ideas about the divine which work (while also holding that they are on the whole “wrong”, which I read as “false/untrue”)?  As I usually use the words, “I believe that X” is the same thing as “I think that X is true”.  If you believe your ideas, do you understand belief such that there’s no contradiction between believing X and thinking that X is wrong?  How do you understand it?

    For my part, I’m happy to entertain all kinds of ideas which I don’t think are true and to make use of these ideas if useful.  But I also nod along with Tonio’s quote.  I’m not paralyzed, except when it comes to forming a belief about the world in the absence of evidence (in my sense of “belief”).  For me,”prudent” is “epistemically responsible”, or (something like) trying to believe what is very likely to be true and to not believe what is not very likely to be true (though of course it’s more complicated than that).

  • hapax

    You avoided using the word in the body of your post, but would you say
    that you “believe” your ideas about the divine which work (while also
    holding that they are on the whole “wrong”, which I read as
    “false/untrue”)?

    “Believe”, as this discussion has amply demonstrated, is a word with different connotations in different contexts, which can mean anything from “provisionally accept” to “intellectually assent to” to “find the purpose for my life in.”  Folks have been jumping from meaning to meaning between comments, and sometimes within a single comment.

    I have faith in my ideas about the Divine. I should be astonished and crushed if they were not so incomplete as to be less than a single dot on the entirety of Seurat’s La Grande Jette; which is only “wrong” in the sense of “false/untrue” if I were to mistake it for the entire picture.

  • Tonio

    But you are placing such a high negative value on the possibility of being factually wrong that I would find literally paralyzing if it were applied consistently.

    Nothing that extreme. I’m saying that human judgment is fallible, so I check my judgment against what I perceive with my senses. (Of course, my senses may be fallible as well, but they’re different from, say, simply sitting in my armchair and coming up with ideas in my head.) As an analogy, I do not have the ability to remember a shopping list longer than three items, so if I have the list written down, I have that as my backup.

    They have helped me understand experiences that would otherwise be puzzling.  They have given me a framework for seeing the universe, making decisions, and communicating my joys, doubts, and fears with others. 

    And those are useful framing devices. My argument is about what exists outside of those devices, about what is factual separate from the realm of human emotion. That doesn’t mean emotion is bad, it means it’s not the same as fact, whatever the fact happens to be.

    I’m not worried about being wrong.  I’m perfectly comfortable with the possibility that I might be wrong. Indeed, I’m absolutely certain that my ideas about the Divine are indeed wrong, probably laughably wrong.

    That’s where I get confused, and maybe it’s a matter of incorrect nomenclature. When I hear “belief,” I take that to mean conviction and commitment to a position, where the person treats the likelihood of being wrong as so remote as to be irrelevant. From what you write, you seem to use “belief” the way I use “suspicion.”

  • hapax

    My argument is about what exists outside of those devices, about what
    is factual separate from the realm of human emotion. That doesn’t mean
    emotion is bad, it means it’s not the same as fact, whatever the fact
    happens to be.

    And … there you’ve lost me.  Human emotions aren’t “fact”?  For heaven’s sake, emotions are not only “factual”, they’re material (products of our material bodies, and the biochemical reactions therein) and testable, as malpollyon correctly notes!

    But by that same token, I live in such a body, subject to those very same joys, doubts, and fears.  Can’t get out of it.  I am as incapable of perceiving a certain wavelength of light, arbitrarily labelled “red”, without immediately feeling warmth, vivacity, danger, cherry-flavouring, and a whole host of other associations, as I am of being poked by a needle and not thinking “ouch!”

    Why on earth would I wish to divorce my thoughts about possible Divine beings — which, as you correctly note, should be implicit in every other observation I make about the universe — from the essential nature of my experience of that universe?

    When you talk about the consequences of being “wrong”, you seem to think of religious faith as a one-off engineering problem or something.  Get the right amount of iron in the correct configuration, and the train passes over the bridge safely.  Get the answer “wrong”, and the bridge falls down, everybody dies.

    But I don’t know anybody personally — even the most fundamentalist hellfire preaching RTC on streetcorners — who approaches their faith that way.  It’s more like a relationship, a long-term marriage if you will. 

    Nobody really decides, “Yes, the empirical factors all line up, I shall marry this person.”  Sometimes there are people you never meet. Sometimes you meet this one person and all it takes is a cup of coffee to say, BAMM!  That’s the One. Some times you date several people, but never feel comfortable with any of them.  Sometimes you date the same person since you were both twelve, and you get married because it never occurs to you not to.  Sometimes you get to know each other over a period of years, until you wake up one morning and say, “By golly, I’m in love.”

    And it doesn’t end with the wedding vows.  A marriage, any relationship, is a constant shifting dance of mutual revelation, negotiation, evolution (yes, on BOTH sides).  It can go well, or badly, or most likely, a mixtre of both.  It can continue to death — and beyond. It can end in divorce, or even violence.  Both partners can go on to find new relationships. In any of those cases, the relationship in a sense continues, since neither party can ever become  the person they would have been if the relationship had never happened.

    THAT’S what a religious “belief” is like.  Not like a multiple-choice math problem.

    And where, in that, is a “right” or a “wrong” answer?

  • Tonio

    Human emotions aren’t “fact”?  For heaven’s sake, emotions are not only “factual”, they’re material (products of our material bodies, and the biochemical reactions therein) and testable, as malpollyon correctly notes!

    Of course emotions are facts in the strict sense of the world. I’m using “fact” to mean specifically things that would be true if humans ceased to exist. Take fear of snakes. Many people are afraid of all snakes, even the nonpoisonous ones, and I know a few people who seem almost proud of that fear. But the fear doesn’t reflect the fact that nonpoisonous ones pose no danger to humans, and in fact are often beneficial since they eat disease-carrying vermin. When I say that emotions are distinct from fact, I mean that the reaction may or may not reflect what is factual.

    But I don’t know anybody personally — even the most fundamentalist hellfire preaching RTC on streetcorners — who approaches their faith that way.  It’s more like a relationship, a long-term marriage if you will.

    Very true. I understand that aspect of religious faith, and how it’s like trusting another human. You and I are taking about two different things. I’m merely talking about the question of whether gods exist, not about any type of relationship that any humans may see themselves as having with gods. A position that gods exist or don’t exist is not the same thing as religious faith as you describe it, even though the latter includes the former. Deism is an example of the former that excludes the latter. There’s nothing wrong with anyone approaching the question of whether gods exist as an intellectual question.

    What I’m trying to describe about the “experience of the universe” is that this is an individual thing and is distinct from whatever may be objective fact about the universe. Getting back to Clapton as an analogy, what you’re talking about is experiencing the drama and heartache in his playing in “Layla,” and I’m talking about what year the song was recorded and who the musicians were. Both are valid and one doesn’t preclude the other. Personally, I can spout trivia about music and still be blown away by a great song.

  • Anonymous

    @fa009241bbd15ee840d21056d1306fb2:disqus Yep, like I feared, I don’t understand you at all.

  • FangsFirst

    @fa009241bbd15ee840d21056d1306fb2:disqus
    I realize you are coming in because you *have* faith and it has nothing to do with my lone stupid argument, but I read the crap out of the old LB posts (and a lot of the comments) and always liked what you had to say, and I still do.
    I felt like saying that, as well as not participating in this conversation anymore (thus disappearing), mostly because I feel like the cavalry arrived.

  • Tonio

    But you are placing such a high negative value on the possibility of being factually wrong that I would find literally paralyzing if it were applied consistently.

    Nothing that extreme. I’m saying that human judgment is fallible, so I check my judgment against what I perceive with my senses. (Of course, my senses may be fallible as well, but they’re different from, say, simply sitting in my armchair and coming up with ideas in my head.) As an analogy, I do not have the ability to remember a shopping list longer than three items, so if I have the list written down, I have that as my backup.

    They have helped me understand experiences that would otherwise be puzzling.  They have given me a framework for seeing the universe, making decisions, and communicating my joys, doubts, and fears with others. 

    And those are useful framing devices. My argument is about what exists outside of those devices, about what is factual separate from the realm of human emotion. That doesn’t mean emotion is bad, it means it’s not the same as fact, whatever the fact happens to be.

    I’m not worried about being wrong.  I’m perfectly comfortable with the possibility that I might be wrong. Indeed, I’m absolutely certain that my ideas about the Divine are indeed wrong, probably laughably wrong.

    That’s where I get confused, and maybe it’s a matter of incorrect nomenclature. When I hear “belief,” I take that to mean conviction and commitment to a position, where the person treats the likelihood of being wrong as so remote as to be irrelevant. From what you write, you seem to use “belief” the way I use “suspicion.”

  • Tonio

    Also, being wrong about things does entail consequences through one’s actions, some minor and some major. A range between “Did I leave the cake out in the rain?” and “Which wire defuses the nuclear bomb?” I would imagine that being wrong about gods may be on the major end of the scale, only because such beings are usually postulated with enormous power. That’s not the same as Pascal’s Wager which implies a hedging of bets as opposed to belief. While it’s almost amusing to hear fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims casting each other into hell for their positions on Jesus, both positions cannot be correct.

  • Anonymous

    I feel like that’s either too narrow or too broad.  In one sense, all of our beliefs are just beliefs, and lots of what look like factual disagreements about testable claims can be dismissed in a similar way.  A lot of the work here is being done by your “shared perception of how to determine a computer is in front of you”.  In the ordinary course of things, we have no problem saying that people can simply be wrong about how to determine whether or not states of affairs attain.  Creationism is the obvious example here, where what’s happening is that creationists are wrong about how to go about figuring out how the diversity of life on this planet came about (among other things).

    We can come up with limited descriptions of God that theists and atheists can agree on.  Most philosophers of religion feel like there are at least some debates they can have where everyone is at least talking about the same thing.  This may not be the case for a specifically Christian God, but naturalists and Christians disagree about more than whether or not the specifically Christian God exists (they also disagree about whether or not any disembodied mind exists, for example, and I think that’s an intuitively clear concept).  There are many such disagreements about spiritual entities which reduce to disagreements about how to come to a conclusion about the defined thing, but I don’t see how such disagreements are relevantly different from disagreements that the vast majority of us believe are simply the result of one side being mistaken.  I feel like either this leads to general skepticism or it doesn’t constitute a reason for atheists/theists to stop believing that and talking like the other side is simply wrong.

  • hagsrus

    Trolls pray to Nuggan

  • Rikalous

    Trolls pray to Nuggan

    But there’s a lot of blue on this site. Shouldn’t they be forbidden from viewing such an Abomination?

  • hagsrus

    Trolls pray to Nuggan

    I was thinking of the trollish tendency to resist logic and reason…

  • Anonymous

    And any successful gambler will tell you that knowing that the outcomes of the last ten thousand coin flips won’t tell you much about the odds of the next one being heads or tails.
    Any successful gambler will tell you that the result 10,000 coin flips is enough to establish the bias of a coin to within quite narrow bands in the absence of other evidence.

    But most *unsuccessful* gamblers are unsuccessful precisely because they rely on rules governing large amounts of data to predict specific occurrences:  “I’ve lost money on the last ten hands, odds are I’ve GOT to get a good hand in the next round…”

    Just because you *can* misinterpret the laws of probability theory doesn’t mean they can’t be used to reason productively. I really don’t understand the point you’re trying to make here (and as a Bayesian have serious reservations about the phrase “rules governing large amounts of data”).

    As to the rest of your post, we seem to be using such different definitions that I’m having trouble parsing your counterargument. I don’t understand how you’re understanding “subjective” to be opposed to “testable”, surely you can obtain evidence on whether your children are fulfilled by performing a quite simple test, asking them. The subjectivity affects the type of evidence you use, it doesn’t exempt the situation from rational inquiry entirely. 

    I also don’t understand how the fact that we might be wrong in hindsight when we make judgments on incomplete data makes those judgments impossible or not amenable to empirical reasoning. Sure my partner *might* be unfaithful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am wrong in judging from the evidence I have at the current time that ze won’t. It certainly doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take into account factors like their general reliability or relationship history when making that judgement.

  • hapax

    I also don’t understand how the fact that we might be wrong in
    hindsight when we make judgments on incomplete data makes those
    judgments impossible or not amenable to empirical reasoning.

    It isn’t a matter of “being wrong in hindsight” or “judgments on incomplete data”.  I was attempting to use a shift in temporal circumstances as an analogy to the shift in frame in reference to demonstrate how the concepts of “right” or “wrong” become meaningless when it becomes clear that the entire of framework of the question asked was inapplicable.

    Therefore, in my hypothetical examples, my answers to the questions “will my spouse be faithful?” “how do I help my children become happy and fulfilled?” even the trivial “what will this dish taste like?” are technically “wrong”, but not wrong because I made a bad judgment, but because I did not have, COULD not have, the same referent for the words “faithful”, “happy and fulfilled”, or even “taste” that I do after a whole set of experiences, some random, some conditioned by those prior expectations.

    I suppose it would be technically *possible* to model that shift in meaning in a Bayesian fashion (always keeping in mind that a model, by definition, is an incomplete attempt to represent a reality), but in practicality, you would soon end up with the Carrollian map that is on the scale of 12 inches = 1 foot. 

    Eventually, one has to take certain things on faith.

  • P J Evans

    Any successful gambler will tell you that the result 10,000 coin flips
    is enough to establish the bias of a coin to within quite narrow bands
    in the absence of other evidence.

    But it won’t tell you if the next flip is going to be heads or tails.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NYIMSCWWLA5XTAYXL3FXNCJZ7I Kiba

    Not sure if anyone is interested or not, but there’s an article from the AP about a group of bible scholars that have been working for the past 53 years on tracking the evolution of the Old Testament http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5itVOexAUQyzm63cPPJabqJgexpHw?docId=6af926e599c0480daf772f95786ad395

  • http://twitter.com/KuroNekoMania ケートリン

    “Richard Dawkins hasn’t produced a fraction of the ex-believers that Bob Jones churns out every year.”
    This is the stone-cold truth. It wasn’t Bob Jones, but I lost my faith attending a Christian college and I know I’m not the only one.

  • hapax

    Jim Daniels, Andrew G., thank you for your responses.  I get now where I went formally astray.

    I’m afraid I have to contradict you on one point;  *I* believe in an (empirically) untestable God.

    On the other hand, the God I believe in isn’t precisely “in” the (material) universe, either, so it’s probably a moot point. 

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

    So what does your empirically untestable god do? anything?

    (Being “outside” the material universe, whatever that’s supposed to mean, isn’t really relevant to the question of testability.)

  • hapax

    So what does your empirically untestable god do? anything?

    (Being
    “outside” the material universe, whatever that’s supposed to mean,
    isn’t really relevant to the question of testability.)

    Well, in my speculations (I emphasize this because it isn’t like my personal “credo” or anything, it’s just a viewpoint that at the moment I find intellectually and aesthetically satisfying) God is “outside” the universe as an author is “outside” a story;  but acts “within” the universe

    a) as the source, sustainer, and final purpose of all that is (which isn’t empirically testable because basically it’s an assertion that if something is, it’s of God, so anything that isn’t of God, well, doesn’t exist)

    b) directly on occasion, but at “the free will of the Spirit” — every direct action of Divinity (most perceived subjectively, but sometimes on rare occasion objectively) within Creation is, technically, a “miracle” (which isn’t empirically testable because by definition a “miracle” is neither predictable nor repeatable)

    There’s also the problem that being outside of the Universe, God is also outside of time, which (from the perspective of a human tester) totally mucks with any perception of causality.  (Classic example — the very specific, unpredictable, and non-repeatable miracle of the Incarnation makes the salvific grace of the Atonement available not just to those who lived after the first century CE, but to all who ever lived prior to that date as well)

  • Tonio

    It’s appropriate here to mention Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi. I’ve rot13ed the rest of my post to hide spoilers…

    Znegry’f cebgntbavfg Cv
    nethrf gung fvapr bar pnaabg cebir be qvfcebir gur rkvfgrapr bs “Tbq”,
    bar fubhyq pubbfr gb oryvrir naljnl fvapr vg’f n orggre fgbel. Jurgure
    “Tbq” vf n orggre be jbefr fgbel guna gur nygreangvir vf fhowrpgvir, naq
    bar pna nethr gung gur rkvfgrapr bs gur Byq Grfgnzrag’f qrvgl jbhyq or
    jbefr guna ab qrvgl. Ohg zl erny vffhr vf jvgu pubbfvat gb oryvrir gung
    fbzrguvat vf gehr onfrq ba rzbgvba. Uhznaf orvat snyyvoyr perngherf, jr
    qb guvf nyy gur gvzr gb bar qrterr be nabgure, ohg gung qbrfa’g znxr vg
    evtug be jvfr va rirel vafgnapr. Crefbanyyl, vs V gbbx gur Cv’f nqivpr
    naq oryvrirq jung sryg tbbq be sryg gehr sbe hasnyfvsvnoyr dhrfgvbaf, V
    pna irel rnfvyl vzntvar zlfrys nyfb qbvat gung sbe snyfvsvnoyr barf,
    yvxr jnagvat gb rng qrffreg sbe rirel zrny. Zbzragnevyl svyyvat ohg
    hygvzngryl abg abhevfuvat. Gung vf n ovt ernfba V pubbfr gb gnxr ab
    cbfvgvba ba hasnyfvsvnoyr dhrfgvbaf, orpnhfr zl rzbgvbaf ner haeryvnoyr
    va gryyvat zr nalguvat nobhg bgure crbcyr be gur jbeyq.

  • Joshua

    In reply to Nathan Bernhardt and Kiba (I’m not even going to try to work out how to reply to two posts at once in Disqus), those are weird news stories.

    Part of me is happy that an obscure field of study that I’m interested in gets a little bit of limelight, but the larger part of me is crying, “Well, what did you think textual critics of religious scriptures did with their careers?”

    In other news, we interview a builder who is putting up a shed, and a fund manager who’s looking at the stockmarket.

  • http://poder5.blogspot.com Prometeo

    I believe in God and keep my faith but the undeniable facts of science are there. Some things cannot be explained or denied. My hope is that the answers that I seek to those thing I can´t refute will be given to me in heaven. 


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