Your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins

Thanks all for your comments on last week’s post on standards of evidence (extraordinary and otherwise). As always, if you’d like to respond to a Monday Call to Arms in longer form as a guest blogger, please email me at leah (dot) libresco (at) yale (dot) edu. The highlighted comment from last week comes from No Forbidden Questions:

If you asserted to me that you drive a Honda, I’d probably believe you with ultimately very little in the way of supporting evidence — a photo (which could be faked), your registration card (which could also be faked), your car keys (which could be someone else’s). The thing is, I have plenty of evidence from my regular life that people often drive Hondas. If you were to claim that you drive a flying saucer, I would require a whole lot more evidence — because “it is an extraordinary claim,” meaning that I lack other evidence to support this as a possibility in the first place. I think I’d be requiring the same level of total evidence in each case, but it would feel like a lot more to you if you were claiming to own a flying saucer (because more of the burden is on you).

The title from this post comes from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 15 verse 17.  Paul writes:

14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Despite Paul’s epistle, some Christians are entirely comfortable reconciling their faith with a non-literal resurrection of Christ.  But for other Christians, any definitive disproof of the resurrection would mean the end of their faith.  This is the question that drives Martin Gardner’s novel The Flight of Peter Fromm (about which more later).

Christianity (and most other religions) make claims about our world, some of which may be vulnerable to empirical inquiry, but many Christians do not engage in deep investigation of the historicity of the gospels or other types of tests.  Is it incumbent on them to research these possible disproofs?  Where should they be looking?

Some kinds of claims are firmly within our ability to research.  For instance, does praying speed recovery times from illness?  (The Mayo Clinic says no).

Some disproofs could come, but are not possible to test through experiment.  The Roman Catholic Church’s claim to be the institution referenced in Matthew 16:18 (“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”) would certainly be disproved if a yawning, brimstone-scented gulf opened under St. Peter’s Basilica and swallowed Vatican City whole.  It might even be disproved if the Catholic Church voluntarily dissolved itself or dwindled away into nothing.  However, none of these outcomes can be tested experimentally.

Other claims could offer proof or disproof but are impossible to study.  (Presumably the Christian who finds himself standing in front of Anubis during the ceremonial weighing of the heart will be dismayed, but the disproof comes far too late to make a difference during life).

I’m not so steeped in the truth claims of Christianity, so I’d really like to hear Christian or other religious people’s thoughts on the following questions:


What earthly evidence could cause you to reject your faith (if any)?

Have you researched these possible disproofs yourself/read the work of scholars in the field?

Does your faith make any empirical predictions about the earthly world?  What are they?

No worries, theists!  Next week’s challenge will be the same basic question, but directed at atheists and agnostics.  I’ll provide some of the ways I could be convinced to abandon atheism, and I look forward to hearing other proposed proofs or if anyone has evidence to match my criteria.

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  • I've always liked that passage from St. Paul; it's a good reminder of the epistemological stakes of religious belief. It's not just about feelings, after all. (John Updike, as an undergraduate, wrote a little poem about this.)That said, Christian faith is not grounded in empirical facts, and so I wouldn't be critical of Christians with no inclination to look this stuff up. At the same time, more curious Christians (like myself) aren't doing anything wrong.But most of the empirical claims the Church makes are tucked away in the past or the future, and would be difficult to refute. I've read some of the theories to the effect that Christ never existed, or that the Church can't actually be traced back to Christ, and I wasn't very convinced. Of course the historical record is spotty, and you couldn't derive Christianity from the secular historical record, but for the most part what we know about that period doesn't contradict what the Church says about herself.In the present day, I would say there are three empirical claims the Church makes (other believers may disagree):1. The Church will not disappear.2. The Jewish race will not disappear.3. Religion works (i.e. the Church makes people holy and reveals God to them).I'd argue that all of these claims have been borne out. But we'd have a hard time agreeing on shared concepts with which to understand the third, and you've already stated rightly that the first two aren't really testable.Ultimately I think this sort of empirical discussion of religion is most suitable for bookish Christians who want to while away an afternoon with historical research. It's almost impossible to construct an atheistical argument on these grounds, and nobody claims that empirical testing ought to be the basis of faith.

  • This is from philosophers Lydia & Time McGrew: Lydia's website is here, if you wish to contact her:

  • @Mike LThanks for the link. It's going to take me a while to go through, but I appreciate the reference.@KevinI so enjoyed the poem you linked to. Merci! Your 3rd point has me wondering, do you think people who seek God in a open questing spirit find him in this lifetime?

  • Leah:The short, snappy answer is that finding God is like finding anything else: inevitable, just as long as you're looking in the right place.I know people who have an "open, questing spirit" that leads them to disdain everything that bears the mark of "organized religion." They go for long walks in the woods, and look at the stars, and think benevolent thoughts–and when they decide they've found God, he turns out to be rather like they were hoping he'd be.But an open, questing spirit doesn't have to be a noncommittal or solipsistic spirit. When I say "religion works," I mean that those who submit to the faith are not disappointed–and I would insist that inasmuch as the consolations of faith are empirical (that is: inwardly, to the believer), this aspect of religion can be tested.But it can't be tested as if it were a substance in a tube or a cell on a slide. The object of the experiment is within you and the test is invasive. Faith involves the whole of the mind; it is impossible to give it a try while maintaining mental reservations.

  • This sentence may contradict the reading of the passage as requiring belief in a historical-factual resurrection, at least for such a resurrection as it is generally understood. It's iffy, but here goes:"And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins."Obviously is Updike is right (and it is a pretty great poem), then even if Christ is raised we are still in our sins. If the Resurrection transcends sinfulness and mortality, that is if it returns man to his essential nature which he lost through the fall, then it is not the same self which rises again but something which we, fallen and finite, cannot hope ever to grasp. So we must understand the resurrection as more than literal coming back, which amounts to the infinite extension of our finite existence, a proposition as terrifying as it is self-contradictory. The argument is largely drawn from Paul Tillich in The Courage to Be, which is one of the greatest things I've ever read about God. Thanks to Ben and Matt for introducing me to Tillich!P.S.: Still atheist.

  • @KevinThanks for your response. I've heard the idea about the consolations of faith for the believer before. However, I've heard it from several different faith traditions. Are non-Christians mistaken when they make the same claims that you are making about their religion working? How should I (as an outside observer) discern which group is actually being consoled after true submission?

  • Leah:I don't know how you could tell without reading their minds. I don't even think Christianity is the most consoling religion: its consolations are won only after and through a sense of sinfulness and creatureliness. An "I'm OK, You're OK" universalism might be "more consoling," on balance.But by "religion works" I didn't just mean that it induces certain feelings in the believer's mind. (Though I realize what I wrote sort of implies that.) That's only part of it. Religion also makes people holy, and makes them better than they'd be otherwise. I admit this is equally intangible, but it's equally important.

  • cl

    Hi Leah. My response got a little unwieldy, so I posted it on my own blog.Cheers!