How Compelling is Christianity’s Cumulative Case?

How Compelling is Christianity’s Cumulative Case? February 25, 2015

I recently responded to the Argument from Mathematics. Apologist William Lane Craig marvels at how mathematics explains much of the physical world.

But if that is surprising, we must ask Craig what world we should expect to see instead. He offers nothing, so then what is there to be surprised at? (See my post for the complete response.)

William Lane Craig’s bravado

At best, Christian apologists can point to some philosophical ambiguity that they hope to resolve with God, but this ignores the fact that science and math have been the only disciplines from which we’ve ever learned about reality, and the Christians’ discipline of theology has delivered no testable results despite millennia of trying.

At the end of the interview, Craig says:

Honestly, I think [God] is the only explanation on the table. I don’t see what the competing naturalistic hypotheses are.

The very existence of WLC’s proposed answer is in doubt. I don’t know whether to marvel more at his audacity to push a hypothesis with no evidence or his gall to think we’re too stupid to notice. Once again WLC sits at the children’s table. “God did it” doesn’t rise to the level of an actual useful explanation that, y’know, explains things. It’s as useful as “Fairies did it.”

If you have no standards, sure, you can label any string of words an “explanation,” but for the rest of us, an explanation needs to pass some minimum test of credibility. Does it answer more questions than it raises? Does it make new predictions? Is it testable? Falsifiable? Does it seem to be agenda-driven wishful thinking? Has this kind of explanation ever been accepted by science before?

Remember that this is the scholar called “one of Christianity’s leading defenders” and “arguably the world’s foremost defender of historic Christianity,” which say much for the standards within Christian apologetics.

If there are unanswered questions, science goes with, “We don’t know … yet.” Let’s stick with that.

This illustrates two problems with how apologists deal with arguments. I’d like to highlight them so you can more quickly spot them in the future.

1. These caltrop arguments mean little to apologists

Caltrop arguments are arguments used as a rearguard action. They don’t make much of a positive argument for Christianity and are only used defensively to deflect atheist arguments.

The Argument from Mathematics isn’t a hill that any apologist will defend to the death. They won’t bother since none use it as an argument to support their own faith. They didn’t come to faith after being convinced by this argument (or the Transcendental Argument or the Ontological Argument or the Design Argument or the Moral Argument), and their faith doesn’t rest on them.

They have nothing of consequence at stake. They may enthusiastically defend the Fine Tuning Argument, say, but once science has an explanation, they’ll discard that argument like a used tissue and grope for another. “Well, how about this one?” they’ll ask with the next argument du jour. “Do I get any points this time?” An apologist would trot out the Argument from Flavors or Colors of the Rainbow if he thought they’d help.

Their argument is simply, “Science has unanswered questions; therefore, God.” That’s not much of an argument, especially since it bets against the only horse that ever wins.

Not only do these arguments form no part of Craig’s evidential foundation, not only does he have no direct evidence supporting his position, but he doesn’t care. He’s content to pretend that an internal conviction of his own correctness trumps any arguments that I could possibly present (more here and here).

2. The failure of the cumulative case

Jim Wallace (of the Cold Case Christianity podcast) argues that Christianity is historically accurate. He claims that this is a cumulative case, like that built by the prosecution in a murder trial.

I disagree with just about every facet of the argument for the historicity of Christianity, but let’s put that aside. I want to introduce the idea of a Christian cumulative case because that’s what William Lane Craig seems to think he’s building.

A cumulative case for a murder trial might show that the accused had motive, that he is connected to the murder weapon (through fingerprints, say), that he had opportunity (no alibi), that other suspects are poor candidates, and so on. Each successful claim strengthens a single overall case.

Contrast that with the case often made for pseudoscience. Consider how the argument for Bigfoot is often made, for example. Here is a large plaster cast that claims to be the impression of a Bigfoot footprint. Here’s the photo of pressed-down vegetation, claimed to be a sleeping area. Here’s a tuft of fur. Here’s a story from a hunter who heard something scary. They’re from different places and times, there is no connection between them, and they invite other explanations besides a Bigfoot. The Bigfoot proponent admits that any one factoid is weak but hopes that the sheer volume will be compelling.

Not really. This isn’t a collection of mutually supporting facts that fit, jigsaw-puzzle-like, into a consistent whole as a cumulative case would. It’s just a big pile of unrelated facts. This kind of argument wasn’t convincing in centuries past for alchemy or homeopathy, and it isn’t convincing today for astrology or Bigfoot.

Let’s return to the William Lane Craig throw-spaghetti-against-the-wall-to-see-if-it-sticks approach to apologetics. If you dismissed one of his arguments, he’d reach into his top hat and pull out another one. He apparently imagines a cumulative case, with a big pile of so-so arguments adding up to a great big hug with Jesus.

But this is a sign of weakness, not strength. These are the unrelated, big-pile-of-crap arguments of those who claim that Bigfoot exists or that space aliens perform experiments on people. I’m not saying that claims for God, Bigfoot, or space aliens are necessarily false; I’m just distinguishing this kind of argument from an actual cumulative case.

WLC puts his reputation on the line when he backs an apologetic argument. He gets the credit when the argument is strong, but he also takes the hit when the argument does nothing more than introduce us to a curious question. We already know that science has unanswered questions. If his argument devolves into merely this observation, he gives no argument for God, he wastes our time, and his reputation must be blemished as a result. Don’t let him wriggle away from a stinker of an argument without consequences.

Some believers accuse skeptics of having nothing left
but a dull, cold, scientific world.
I am left with only art, music, literature, theatre,
the magnificence of nature, mathematics, the human spirit,
sex, the cosmos, friendship, history, science, imagination,
dreams, oceans, mountains, love, and the wonder of birth.
That’ll do for me.
— Lynne Kelly

Image credit: Bradley Newman, flickr, CC

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