Friday, February 13, 2015

Lennox's 10, Part III

In this blog entry, I continue my examination of Oxford Professor and Christian apologist John Lennox’s reactions to common objections to Christianity.

This is the third entry in this series. The first two entries can be found here:
In the present entry, I consider Lennox’s reaction to the fifth and sixth claims which he considers, namely that “faith is believing without evidence” and “faith is a delusion.”

The fifth prompt is given as follows:
5) Faith is believing without any evidence.
The article states:
Christian belief has never been about having no evidence: the gospels were written to provide evidence, as the beginning of Luke's attests. The end of John's gospel says, "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name."
Christians insist that they do not believe without evidence, but then they typically do what we find here: they point to the bible as though it served as evidence. The bible affirms a long series of claims. But a claim does not serve as evidence of its own truth. Statements like “The Bible says it’s true!” are not going to be very persuasive to those who do not already accept its contents as historically factual. So pointing to what the bible says about itself (or rather, what one book within the bible says about itself) misses the point entirely. So the approach offered here ignores the fundamental distinction between a claim and evidence which supports it. It is the claims in the bible that need independent evidence to support them. Pointing to the bible does not produce independent evidence for its claims; rather, it only confirms the nagging suspicion that apologists simply have no evidence to support their god-belief claims in the first place.

The article quotes Prof. Lennox:
But believing without evidence is a common notion of 'faith' at present. "This definition is in the dictionary and believed by many," said Prof Lennox. "So, when we talk about faith in Christ, they think that's because there's no evidence. [John's gospel shows that] Christianity is an evidence-based faith."
This simply begs the question. In fact, in the context of the story we read in John’s gospel – Lennox no doubt has the episode involving Doubting Thomas in mind here – the people in the story are portrayed as having the opportunity to examine evidence (namely a few flesh wounds) and thereupon “believe” that Jesus has been resurrected (and thus taken by eager believers as validation of everything else contained in the New Testament, as Lennox appears to be encouraging here). But if this is a fiction to begin with, then it has zero value as evidence. We need evidence to support the contention that the stories we read in the New Testament are true. But Lennox does not point to any. In fact, what he does offer, again, only amplifies the suspicion that apologists have no evidence for their religious beliefs.

And certainly we today are not “blessed” with such evidence. Even if a guy in first century Palestine did stick his fingers in a recently crucified man walking among his cultic clan, this would not do us any good. And what’s most ironic in all this is the fact that the story itself makes it clear that believers are expected to believe without evidence – that’s the whole point of the entire Doubting Thomas episode, namely to shame believers into forfeiting any desire for evidence in the first place.

So again, Prof. Lennox has yet to score even a base hit.

The sixth prompt is given as follows:
6) Faith is a delusion. I'd no more believe in God than I would in the Easter Bunny, Father Christmas or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
The article responds:
These ideas have been made famous by people such as Prof Richard Dawkins. The only thing they are good for is mockery.
What other than mockery does a persisting delusion deserve? Christianity makes a mockery of man, of the world, of reality as such. It makes a mockery of biology, of knowledge, of the human mind. It mocks the entire human condition. Most of all, it makes a mockery of the human mind.

Does Lennox give any reason to suppose that faith is not a delusion, or at any rate a doorway to delusion? Lennox is a Christian. But what do Christians think of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and adherents to other religions if they don’t think they’re deluded? Does Lennox think they are all sober-minded, clear-thinking and fully rational people who have not been deluded, but who have accepted entirely truthful worldviews? I somehow doubt it. Yet what fundamentally distinguishes the epistemology of Christianity from that of any of these other religions? They look very much the same. They may differ in narrative details – as one would expect. But they do not differ in fundamental essence: they all require the abnegation of reason and the acceptance of belief claims on faith in some authority.

The article quotes Prof. Lennox:
"Statements by scientists are not always statements of science," said Prof Lennox. "Stephen Hawking said, ‘religion is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark’. I said, ‘atheism is a fairy story for people afraid of the light’.”
This is just juvenile “neener-neener-neener.” And it would be utterly baffling if someone seriously maintained that atheism is “a fairy story.” What is the fairy’s name? What does the fairy do in the story? Atheism is synonymous with non-belief in theism. How is that “a fairy story”?

Prof. Lennox continues:
"Neither of those statements proves anything at all. They're all reversible. What lies behind all these delusion claims is the Freudian idea of wish fulfilment [that we believe what we hope to be true.] This works brilliantly providing there is no god. But if there is a god, then atheism is wish fulfilment." [sic]
It’s good that Lennox recognizes the futility in suggesting that atheism is “a fairy story.” But what he does affirm is little better since it ignores the distinction between something existing and knowing that that something exists. In one fell swoop, Lennox sweeps the entire discipline of epistemology aside in order to smear atheism as something it isn’t. For even if there were a god, the question would be: how could we know this? Even if we say for argument’s sake that a god does exist, how would atheism therefore be wish fulfillment or even wrong? If there were no way of knowing that a god exists, then not believing that there is a god is not only excusable, but in fact the only rational option. Similarly, if we find, after investigating god-belief claims, that defenses of those claims are woefully deficient and rationally untenable, then the only rational thing to do is to reject such claims, regardless of whatever wishes we might have.

Suppose there is a planet orbiting a star in a distant galaxy, and on this planet there is a mountain that is four times higher than Rheasilvia (the highest known mountain in our solar system, on the asteroid Vesta). Now, suppose further that even though the mountain exists, we have no way of discovering its existence. We don’t even know of the planet’s existence let alone any features on its surface. Thus we have no epistemological basis for believing that it exists. Not believing that this mountain exists is clearly not in any way, shape or form an instance of wish fulfillment.

Similarly with theism: if believers cannot explain to us the steps that we can take independently to come to the same belief that they affirm and expect us to accept, then we are entirely right to reject such belief claims. Knowledge requires the support of objective input. If the theist can identify no objective input to support his god-belief claims, then he needs to accept the fact that some people will simply not accept those claims.

Apologists, however, will never find such a state of affairs at all satisfying. Rather, they proceed as if they expected us simply to accept their god-belief claims on their say so. Appealing to religious experience is not helpful; we don’t deny the fact that religious believers have had experiences. Of course they have! It’s their “account” for such experiences which is in question – their explanation of the causation underlying experiences which they consider religiously significant. Since they typically do not indicate what if any procedure they performed to validate their claim to have experienced something supernatural, there’s no way for anyone to rule out the possibility that they are simply mistaken.

Take for example the notion of miracles. Occasionally a believer will claim to have witnessed a miracle. So we can ask: what exactly happened and how precisely did you determine that what you witnessed was in fact a miracle? Don’t be surprised if you detect a subtle appeal to the god of the gaps here. Often a miracle is styled as an event for which there is no other explanation. It must, then, be a process of elimination at this point, with the last thing standing taking the shape of a pointer to the believer’s god-belief. What could be more convenient? Without demonstrating a systematic process by which all alternatives – even unknown ones – were eliminated, such a procedure is tantamount to the confession: “I have no idea how it happened, so it must be God!” And in such a way, we simply have an assertion by way of ignorance. This is worse than merely being mistaken.

Similarly with religious experience: the believer doesn’t know (or refuses to consider) how else his experience can be explained, so it must have been the very god he worships at church that caused it. On this score, appeals to religious experience share a close kinship with tripping out on a drug: don’t knock it till you try it. Or: You have to experience it for yourself to know how wonderful it is.

And of course, it may be that the believer simply wants others to believe that he’s experienced some special visitation by a supernatural being, and thus has successfully deluded himself into believing this to be the case (either that, or he’s outright lying). How can anyone rule out the possibility, which Lennox would surely need to concede, that this is not what’s happening when believers claim to have had an experience with a supernatural being or to have witnessed a miracle? Blank out.

Now, before concluding this installment, I realize that I’ve mentioned these two examples elsewhere, but since Lennox insinuates that atheism is a form of wish fulfillment, readers new to my blog may find them informative since they come directly from defenders of the Christian worldview. So I will present them here again.

First we have John Frame who, in his book Apologetics to the Glory of God makes the following statement (p. 37):
I suspect that many who profess unbelief nevertheless wish that something like that [i.e., like Christianity’s god-belief claims] were true. It is the work of the apologist not only to argue for the truth, but to portray it as it is, in all its beauty, and not neglecting its darker tones. As we thus describe its attractiveness, but also its challenges, we perform an apologetic service. For very often, before someone confesses the truth, he or she comes to the point of wishing it were true. That is all to the good. Wishing does not make anything true or false, and it is slander to claim that Christianity is mere wish fulfillment. But a person with a wish to be fulfilled is often on the road to belief.
Notice the close ties between belief and wishing that Frame emphasizes throughout all this. According to what he says, “wishing” that something is true “is all to the good” for Frame. It’s quite clear here: wishing precedes belief. Frame is telling us a lot about Christianity here.

Notice also how Frame’s point is diametrically opposed to what Lennox has suggested. Above Lennox states that “the Freudian idea of wish fulfilment” [sic] is what lurks behind the claim that Christianity is a delusion, and further that atheism is also wish fulfillment. According to Lennox, everyone’s deluded because everyone’s going around believing what they wish to be true. By contrast, Frame suspects that non-believers actually wish that there were a god, which would mean that they are not believers in spite of their wishes.

Believers will often try to sell their religious beliefs on the view that, by believing, converts will be able to enjoy an eternity in heaven; if they do not convert, they will suffer for eternity in hell. Now, typically no one (religious ascetics aside) wants to suffer at all, either in the here and now, or in some realm which we imagine coming after death. If the notion that one’s consciousness survives the death of his body is accepted (and even merely quasi-religious people do accept this), they will, if asked, most likely say that they do not want to wind up in an afterlife of unceasing torment. So motivation to believe religious notions can be irresistible if irrational premises are accepted.

Indeed, many people will wish that this life is not the end-all and be-all to their existence, and consequently hope that there is an afterlife awaiting them beyond the grave. This wish alone is a powerful aphrodisiac for religious conversion: they want to believe that death can be overcome, especially if they have not made an effort to make their lives prosperous and enjoyable. “If I don’t achieve happiness here on earth,” one might say to herself, “I can always find happiness with Jesus in heaven.”

Taking into account the fact that most adults are not explicitly taught rational principles (and typically do not actively seek to discover them), including the principle that facts and reality are fundamentally distinct from wishes and imagination, we should not be surprised to find many people believing what they wish for without bothering to conform what they hold to be true to facts. The “I want it to be true, therefore I’ll believe it” mindset, which is so prevalent in western culture today, is not a product of rational philosophy. But a worldview which instructs its adherents to pray to a supernatural being which can make anything one imagines a reality, very well does encourage such a mindset.

So even an implicit abandonment of reason will leave a mind vulnerable to the predatory deception of religion. An individual so disposed need not adhere to any particular religious teaching in a devoted manner; having in effect renounced the efficacy of his own mind is sufficient to make him vulnerable to religious suggestion. All it takes at this point is the passing opportunist peddling religious notions, and another fish will be caught in the net, to use the metaphor attributed to Jesus in the gospels. So indeed, as Frame puts it, “a person with a wish to be fulfilled is often on the road to belief.”

Our second example comes from Christian apologist Mike Licona. In a roundtable discussion which included Licona, Gary Habermas (also a Christian apologist) and Robert M. Price (a vocal critic of Christianity), Licona makes the following confession (which I have examined in a previous blog entry here):
Having been brought up in a Christian family, gone to a Christian university, involved in Christian ministry, that I have a bias, I want it to be true.
Here we have a Christian apologist – someone who goes around giving speeches and participating in public debates – stating quite frankly that he wants the worldview he defends to be true. He doesn’t say “I really think this is true, and I think people really need to know about this.” No, he acknowledges that he is driven by not only a personal bias, but also a tremendous investment that he has made in getting a specifically “Christian” education and having a religiously oriented career. He was raised with these beliefs and likely began investing himself in the hope – the wish – that it’s all true at a relatively young age. Along the way he was probably motivated by the approval of those around him who encouraged him and praised his “work for the Lord,” a notion which on the face of it is quite silly.

Christian apologists are constantly accusing non-believers of being swayed by their own biases and “presuppositions,” and they make such accusations with condemnation. For example, apologists will accuse thinkers like David Hume and Richard Dawkins of being biased against miracle claims. Often in such cases the apologists are assuming that some insidious bias is motivating rejection of miracle claims without any legitimate basis. But in fact, apologists do not demonstrate that this must necessarily be the case. For example, I reject miracle claims, but not because I’m driven by some illicit bias against them. Rather, I recognize that the very notion of miracles assumes a false metaphysics – namely the primacy of consciousness – which I know is false (for more on this, see my blog entry Craig Keener on Miracles). There is nothing unfairly biased in rejecting a notion because it rests on false premises. If my friend tells me that the Golden Gate Bridge is located in Denver, I am not acting on some unjustified “bias” by pointing out that it is actually located in San Francisco. If I’m guilty of having any bias, it must be a bias in favor of facts and against falsehood and arbitrary notions. Perhaps this is why apologists resent me so much.

But now here’s one of their own candidly admitting his own bias in a most overt fashion, and yet where are all the Christian apologists condemning Licona for such outright bias? Most likely apologists would praise Licona for being so candid and ignore the content of his confession and its implications for his religious defenses.

I’m confident that if we take the time, we could uncover many more examples – statements made by apologists themselves which fly in the face of Lennox’s trite rejoinder here. For example, another one comes to mind, this one by Christian apologist Phil Fernandes in his debate with Jeff Lowder:
I just believe that we are very good about lying to ourselves, and only accepting, uh, or interpreting the evidence the way we would like to.
By using the pronoun ‘we’ here, Fernandes includes himself in his own pronouncement. In which case Fernandes is telling us that he’s “very good about lying to [himself].” Of course, let the apologists speak for themselves.

To be continued…

by Dawson Bethrick

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Blogger Cross Crusher said...

Excellent article, Mr Bethrick.

Surely the world record for greatest oxymoron ever uttered has to go to John Lennox for the following little gem he once offered during a debate:

"My faith is based on evidence."


February 23, 2015 10:45 AM  

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