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[Turing] Christian Answer #3

[Turing] Christian Answer #3 July 11, 2011

This post is part of the Ideological Turing Test Challenge. Go to the tab above for an overview and remind yourself of the voting and commenting guidelines.

What is your best reason for being a Christian?

This is really a two-part question, regarding belief in God and belief in Christianity; for the sake of space, I’ll address God here and Christianity in question 3. Because before you can even consider Christianity, you must grapple with the question of the existence of God, in whatever way you understand that concept. For me, God (broadly construed for the purposes of this discussion) is a logical necessity. Our knowledge of the physical universe, while extensive and growing more comprehensive all the time, simply cannot account for why there is something rather than nothing, nor how space/time came to be. It defies the law of entropy in every way.

Furthermore, the fundamental constants of physics — for example, the ratio of the force of electromagnetism to gravity, the cosmological constant, etc. — are such that they must all, every single one, be precisely calibrated; otherwise, the Big Bang would have resulted in the universe inexorably exploding apart, for example, without a chance for gravity to hold anything together, or immediately collapsing upon itself within a matter of nanoseconds. Instead, the constants of physics interact in such a way that the universe was and is able to remain relatively stable. The chances of the various constants aligning in such a way as to be hospitable to human life has been calculated (by Sir Roger Penrose, who among many other laurels was co-awarded the Wolf Foundation Prize for Physics with Stephen Hawking) at 10^10^23 to 1. That’s ten, raised to the power of ten-to-the-23rd-power. It’s a mindbogglingly small number. (For comparison, one trillion is 10^12.) In fact, it’s well below the threshold at which physicists generally approximate to zero.

Please understand that this is not in itself an argument from fine-tuning — rather, it’s simply a recognition of the brain-melting unlikelihood of our universe existing. There was one winning ball in a lotto wheel that contained 10^10^23 balls, and we drew it. Peter van Inwagen uses the example of a man condemned to die who has to draw a straw from a pack of one million (vastly better odds than the ones above, let’s note!). If he draws a long straw, he will be immediately killed. But if he draws the single short straw, his life will be spared. If he were in front of an audience who witnessed him, in fact, draw the one short straw from the million, they would quite reasonably conclude that the whole process was rigged. Somebody behind the scenes ensured that the right straw got drawn.

Granted, there are ways to get around this difficulty. Positing a multiverse releases us by (to extend the metaphor above) suggesting that a million condemned men each drew a straw, and one was spared — it had to be somebody, in other words, and we just got lucky and happened to be it. But the vast majority of people are not claiming the existence of a multiverse, and in fact we have no more empirical evidence for a multiverse than we do for a creator God (and, in addition to brazenly violating Ockham’s Razor, positing a multiverse raises at least as many questions as God does). Given the fact that contemporary philosophy of religion has made incredible strides in tackling various logical issues inherent in the concept of God (for instance, Alvin Plantinga’s disarming of the logical problem of evil), I am reasonably intellectually confident in my belief in a creating force external to the universe as we understand it — in other words, God.

What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to stop believing in God?

This is honestly a difficult question. Given what I’ve outlined in the previous question, I think God is logically necessary. If we discovered incontrovertible proof of a multiverse, for example (although I have no idea what sort of evidence that could possibly look like), it would definitely give me significant intellectual pause. But it still wouldn’t disprove God as creator, since space-time still needs an origin, and the multiverse needs an explanation of some sort. (I would love to discuss why God doesn’t need a creator or explanatory force, but I’m already getting long winded and now’s not the time.) I’m intellectually open to evidence that would disprove God, but I struggle to come up with an idea of what form that evidence might take.

On the other hand, Christianity makes all sorts of verifiable/falsifiable claims about physical and temporal reality, so I can think of lots of ways I might stop being a Christian. For example, if somebody unearthed a tomb and skeleton tomorrow that could be demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt to be that of Yeshua of Nazareth, son of Yehosef and Miriam (it would be hard to definitively prove that it was the Jesus of Christianity, so let’s hold the standard to be, say, the consensus of a majority of respected scholars in the field), then I would have some long, hard thinking to do about the truth claims of Christianity. (This is a gentle way of saying I’d probably have to throw it all out.)

Why do you believe Christianity has a stronger claim to truth than other religions/On what basis do you reject the truth claims of other traditions and denominations but accept your own?

Given my premise regarding God’s existence (see above), it’s not necessarily the case that the God who created the universe is one who is a person in the philosophical sense of the word — that is, a being with which it makes sense to have a relationship — or one that desires worship, etc. For a religion to have epistemological likelihood, then, it must meet at least these three criteria: 1) Consistency with the objective, empirical, and observable world (Does it fit with what we know of the universe?); 2) Consistency with personal, subjective experience (Does it fit with my own internal, unquantifiable experiences and those of at least some others?); and 3) Explanatory and predictive ability (Does its explanation of human nature/experience accurately describe/predict reality?)

In my opinion, the only religion to satisfy these criteria is the Catholic Church. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was not raised Catholic and converted as an adult.) The long history of the Catholic intellectual tradition is one of consistent effort to understand the world and humanity’s place in it, using reason and logic as its primary tool: one need only read a few of the Scholastics, including Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Anselm, and even Ockham — although Ockham’s nominalism makes me want to throw things — in order to see this dramatically demonstrated. The claims of the Catholic Church regarding the human condition and spirituality are completely consistent with my own experience, which has in fact included phenomena I cannot explain. I recognize that my personal, subjective experience cannot be universalized, but the fact that it fits with Catholicism is something I cannot discount. Lastly, the Catholic Church’s understanding of the nature and purpose of humanity is not only accurate, but holds predictive ability; see, for one example, Paul IV’s predictions regarding the consequences of widespread contraceptive use in 1968’s Humanae Vitae, which have been corroborated by social scientific research in the past few decades. (Yes, this means I am opposed to the use of artificial contraception, even in marriage. Obviously there’s not room to expand upon that here. Ask me after I’m unmasked!)

Any of these three criteria, in and of themselves, wouldn’t be enough to convince me of a religion’s or denomination’s truth value. All three taken together, however, are pretty compelling.

How do you read the Bible? Do you study the history of its translations? How do you decide which translations/versions/books are the true Bible? How does it guide you if you have a moral or theological dilemma?

Since I’m Catholic, this is really not a difficult question. Catholicism recognizes that, while the Bible is a very important way in which God communicates with human beings, it’s not the only one. In fact, the Bible was compiled by the Catholic Church several centuries after the death of Christ. Prior to the formal canonization of scripture, while Christian communities may have had access to some or even all of what would eventually become the canon, they were led and governed by the tradition received from the apostles and the guidance of ordained clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons). As luck would have it, Catholicism retains all those sources!

Snark aside, while Catholics revere the scriptures, they recognize that the books of the Bible were written by individuals from enormously different cultural and temporal settings, and were intended for very different audiences. When considering a piece of scripture, whether a book in entirety or an individual verse, what’s important is to ask: What was the author attempting to communicate to the audience? What does it imply regarding God’s relationship to human beings or human beings to one another? How does that insight translate into my present context? Obviously, reasonable and devout people can and often do disagree on how they answer those questions (witness the enormous proliferation of independent Protestant denominations and communities, especially among evangelicals). However, Catholics recognize the authority inherent in apostolic succession, the deposit of faith received and preserved over the past 20 centuries, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s Bride, the Church. Respect for the Church instituted by Christ and the authority conferred by apostolic succession enables both unity and clarity on issues that might otherwise be a source of great conflict. On those points that are not central aspects of faith and morals, however, there’s great freedom for personal conscience and conviction. But if you find yourself wanting more guidance or input, there are enormous amounts of resources available (to start: your pastor, the bishops of your diocese or country, knowledgeable friends, respected contemporary theologians, Augustine, Aquinas, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola, Therese of Lisieux, GK Chesterton, Jacques Maritain, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, etc. etc. etc.) to provide context, insight, and wisdom.

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