Friday, November 22, 2019

Initial Questions for James Anderson's "Why Should I Believe Christianity"

I recently ordered Dr. James N. Anderson’s book Why Should I Believe Christianity?. With much anticipation, it has finally arrived and I am ready to start devouring it. Before I go and read it though, I wanted to set before myself a number of questions to keep by my side as I go through Anderson’s book, questions I’ve always wanted to see answered from a religious perspective. I figure, if I define before reading a book what I want to get out of it, I’ll be that much more positioned to have a personally rewarding experience when I do read it, and that’s important to me. Also, my exploration of Anderson’s book might make for some exciting content for my blog. I’ve seen a few reviews of the book posted online, but none by anyone who’s not a professed believer that I could find. So perhaps I’ll be the first!

Published in 2016, Why Should I Believe Christianity? comes with some very enthusiastic acclaim, albeit from other Christians. Just inside the book’s jacket on the front end sheet, we find a number of plugs for the book. For example, apologetic heavyweight John M. Frame writes that “James Anderson is one of the best writers in contemporary Reformed theology and apologetics,” adding that “he has a wonderful gift for anticipating the questions in readers’ minds” and states that his book “is one of the best sources available for presenting the rationale of the Christian faith to an unbelieving reader.” K. Scott Oliphant calls Anderson’s work in the book “a masterful job” and says that his book “will be a necessary tool for anyone interested in addressing arguments against Christian truth.” Michael J. Kruger calls it a “fantastic book” and that in it “James Anderson offers one of the clearest and most compelling explanations for the truth of Christianity that I have ever read.” “Read it multiple times,” urges Kruger, “then give it to a friend.” “In this book,” writes R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “believers will find a compelling defense of the Christian worldview and the resources necessary to stand firm in a faithless age,” even though a five-star review on the page for the book states that Anderson’s book is “written to and for unbelievers.” 

Below is the list of questions I will keep by my side as I read through Anderson’s book. Since, according to Frame, Anderson “has a wonderful gift for anticipating the questions in readers’ minds,” it seems most appropriate to write some out before actually diving into his book’s contents, given Frame’s assessment of its author. Most of my questions are polar in nature (i.e., yes/no), but there are also a few follow-up hypotheticals (e.g., If yes to the previous question, then…?). Of course, the list could be expanded, but this list is already long enough; also, I expect that some of the things Anderson does say in his book will give rise to additional questions, which I’ll be sure to note down. As I read through each chapter, my desire (assuming I have time) is to post my own observations, analysis, critiques, etc., right here on my blog!

With that, here is my list:
  1. Does Anderson provide clear definitions for key terms relevant to his thesis (e.g., truth, knowledge, belief, certainty, universe, etc.)?
  2. Does Anderson explain whether or not there’s a purpose to truth, knowledge and belief, and if so, what are their purpose?
  3. Does Anderson identify a conceptually irreducible starting point?
  4. Does Anderson discuss the nature of the relationship between consciousness and its objects?
  5. Does Anderson discuss the nature of the concept of objectivity and relate it directly to the relationship between consciousness and its objects?
  6. Does Anderson inform a worldview which is based on objectively based rational principles which one can discover independently, through his own interaction with the world, and apply to the entire structure of his knowledge, or does he instead inform a worldview based on alleged historical events which no one alive today can claim to have witnessed firsthand?
  7. Does Anderson acknowledge man’s capacity to imagine?
  8. Does Anderson think it’s important to recognize and observe the distinction between the real and the imaginary in worldview considerations?
  9. Does Anderson indicate any concern or acknowledgement for the epistemological need to distinguish between things described as beyond the reach of the senses on the one hand, and things that might be merely imaginary on the other?
  10. Does Anderson acknowledge man’s ability to believe what he imagines is real?
  11. Does Anderson acknowledge the need for an epistemologically reliable means of distinguishing between what one believes and what one imagines?
  12. Does Anderson address the need for a reliable epistemological means of distinguishing between what we might be imagining from what is real? Or: of determining whether or not what we believe is in fact imaginary?
  13. Does Anderson acknowledge the power which imagination has over emotions?
  14. Does Anderson acknowledge the role that imagination plays when reading accounts of personal activity?
  15. Does Anderson recognize that when we get to the conclusion of any theistic argument, we still have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence it’s offered to prove?
  16. Does Anderson acknowledge the epistemological need for a good theory of concepts?
  17. If yes, does Anderson indicate where a good theory of concepts can be found?
  18. If a good theory of concepts is not to be found in the bible (I’ve not found one in either the OT or NT), why not? (It speaks of animal sacrifice, dietary rules, fasting, circumcision, nakedness, adultery, war, vengeance, etc., but not concepts?)
  19. Does Anderson explain how one can believe that a god exists without making use of his imagination?
  20. Does Anderson believe that wishing makes it so?
  21. If not, does Anderson outline a metaphysics which presumes a relationship between consciousness and its objects that is consistent with both (a) his rejection of the view that wishing makes it so, and (b) his belief in the Christian god?
  22. Does Anderson explain how in the final analysis the doctrine of miracles does not reduce essentially to the view that wishing makes it so? (For didn’t Jesus wish the water into wine at the wedding at Cana? If this was not wishing, what was it?)
  23. Does Anderson ever appeal to something which we can only find by looking inward (as opposed to looking outward) as ultimate evidence for his god, such as the “heart” or “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit,” things which would be very difficult (if not impossible) for some else to distinguish from what Anderson may just be imagining? If so, how does he suggest that we distinguish these alleged internal sources from his imagination? (Or, does he?)
  24. Does Anderson understand that even if something does not exist, we can still imagine that it does?
  25. At any point does Anderson make a statement (especially in regard to the nature of truth) which involves an implicit or concealed appeal to the primacy of existence (such as “believing doesn’t make it true” or “wishing doesn’t make it so” and the like – i.e., statements which take for granted the fact that objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of conscious activity)?
Now, supposing that the objection is raised that the purpose of Anderson’s book is not to address any of these questions (which would be quite an admission in its own right), one can replace “Anderson” with “Anderson’s worldview” or “the Christian worldview,” as appropriate, in each of the above questions, for in general these are some of the questions I would have for any defense of Christianity. In fact, I’d suggest setting before yourself questions of this sort (come up with your own if you don’t like mine) any time you’re about to read any apologetics material, and see how well it fares. Indeed, apologists themselves might consider addressing some or all of these questions the next time they set out to write a book intended to persuade non-believers to their religious worldview. It would make for some interesting reading to say the least! But if Anderson does not address at least some of these questions in his book, I’d say it’s another in a long line of missed opportunities, for if a worldview provides its adherents with no intellectual tools to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, what greater deficiency than this would be possible?

Apologists may object to my questions by virtue of their affiliation with Objectivism and claim that they thus cannot constitute any basis for an internal critique. But this would land them in a trap of their own devising, given the nature of the questions I’ve laid out. Objectivism recognizes explicitly that wishing doesn’t make it so just as believing something doesn’t make it true – and for the same fundamental reason: conscious activity (e.g., wishing, believing, imagining, etc.) does NOT hold metaphysical primacy over reality. The exact opposite is the case: reality holds metaphysical primacy over conscious activity. Thus wishing, believing, and imagining are powerless against reality, and my questions are aligned directly with these fundamental facts. The attitude “Well that’s obvious and goes without saying!” indicates a readiness to shirk an important task of philosophical inquiry, namely making that which is implicitly known explicit and ensuring one’s philosophy is entirely consistent with truths of a most fundamental nature. The risk here – and enormous it indeed is – is that the nature of the relationship between consciousness and its objects lies submerged in the benthic depths of a murky sea, out of the thinker’s sight and thus out of his mind. As a result, he won’t know where he’s stepping – whether on solid bedrock, in quicksand, or on an epistemological landmine. What’s at stake is a worldview’s most fundamental assumptions, and one of the primary functions of worldview inquiry is to explore, expose and identify those fundamental assumptions, even if defenders would prefer they be kept concealed. So to object to my questions on this basis would tacitly constitute a dead giveaway that the worldview in the dock, namely Christianity, subsists on the primacy of consciousness metaphysics (e.g., wishing makes it so, imagination outranks facts, etc.) like a parasitical tick on a dog’s back.

Now wishing, imagining, and believing are all types of conscious activity which young and old alike perform volitionally. They are not the only types of conscious activity, but when it comes to analysis of a religious worldview, determining the degree of involvement in the minds of believers and their role in the believing process is of paramount importance, since we’re talking about things which are supposed to be invisible, imperceptible, beyond the universe, and in possession of qualities which are not analogous to anything which we do find in the world around us. As it’s been said before, the invisible and the imaginary look very much alike. The power of imagination is very strong, and when we imagine something, what we imagine seems very, very close to us, since it’s right there in our own minds. Moreover, in our youngest years when we haven’t explicitly grasped the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects (and most adults don’t grasp this at all consistently even later in life), imagination can profoundly influence what we believe and take to be true, its inventions seeming as though they were taking on a life of their own and taking up residence within our very egos. Consider the testimony of the grandfather of presuppositionalism himself, Cornelius Van Til who, in his paper Why I Believe in God, makes it very clear that, as a young child spending the night in the family cow-barn and devoting himself to the Christian god as a result of being scared out of his wits, his imagination played a central role in his decision-making when he chose to embrace theism. There he describes this centrally formative event in his life as follows:
Permission [to spend the night in the cow-barn] was finally given. Freud was still utterly unknown to me, but I had heard about ghosts and "forerunners of death." That night I heard the cows jingle their chains. I knew there were cows and that they did a lot of jingling with their chains, but after a while I was not quite certain that it was only the cows that made all the noises I heard. Wasn't there someone walking down the aisle back of the cows, and wasn't he approaching my bed? Already I had been taught to say my evening prayers. Some of the words of that prayer were to this effect: "Lord, convert me, that I may be converted." Unmindful of the paradox, I prayed that prayer that night as I had never prayed before.
Clearly young Cornelius, as he recounts his childhood experience here, heard various noises in the night and, as he could not see what was actually making those noises, his imagination kicked into high gear and started to draw on the “forerunners of death” that he “had heard about” prior to this. It was his imagination all along that stoked his fears and provided fantastical content directly influencing his decision to “be converted” right there on the spot. And of course, at his tender age, he lacked the philosophical principles that are necessary for carefully disambiguating the output of his imagination from his understanding of the world. This problem is not exclusive to children or theists, and it can be averted only by deliberate application of a philosophy which is self-consciously (for lack of a better term) based on an objective starting point, something that is not only not found in the religious view of the world, but actually discouraged by religion’s emphasis on belief, prayer, deferral to personal authority, etc.

Given the power of the imagination, our ability to believe that what we imagine is real, and our fallibility as thinkers, one would think that a worldview styled as so concerned with truth and the rudiments of its nature as adherents claim on behalf of Christianity, would provide believers the philosophical equipment necessary to distinguish between reality and imagination and ensure that their beliefs were not based on imagination or at least influenced by its inventions. I’ve not found anything in the Christian bible which does this, and I’ve examined numerous books on apologetics and defenses of Christianity as the one and only true worldview, and I’m aghast that biblical authors and modern apologists alike are so uniform in their muteness on this issue. My suspicion is that they don’t dare draw attention even to the mere possibility that what they believe could be at all intermingled with what is merely imaginary, for given the nature of their religious claims and their inevitable retreat to referencing alleged internal sources as the ultimate arbiter for their beliefs, they in fact have no way of reliably distinguishing between what they call “God” and what they are in the final analysis only imagining.

Apologists’ failure to address this strikes me as such a glaring liability in the defense of the Christian faith that it cannot be due to some mass oversight (cf. mass hallucination), but something more systemic at the core of their belief. A serious question which thinkers defending their worldview need to ask themselves:
Is the distinction between reality and imagination important? If so, how does your worldview address this distinction and ensure that what it affirms as truth is not contaminated with the imaginary?
But in the case of Anderson’s book, I’m holding out hope! I’m not just content, but in fact eager to give Anderson a fair hearing on the matter. My impression is that James Anderson is a good man and a very able thinker. Also, I know that he has been industriously crafting his apologetic prowess for some two decades or more, and throughout that time he has no doubt encountered numerous challenges to his faith, including some of my own writings. So in spite of the deafening silence coming from other apologists, whether book mills like Van Til, Bahnsen or Frame, or those have been active on the internet like Steve Hays, William Lane Craig, Sye Ten Bruggencate, Dustin Segers, etc., I’m ready to be blown away by a defender of the faith who once and for all addresses these fundamental concerns, if in fact he does. 

Now if we find in defense after defense that Christian apologists ignore the distinction between reality and imagination with such regularity that one gets the sneaking suspicion that all discussion of the matter is systemically avoided, on what basis could we infer therefrom that this distinction really is important to apologists, but simply don’t have time or space to address it in their defenses? I would not infer this, nor would I encourage others to suppose that’s really what’s going on here. Quite the contrary, I think it’s because their worldview is informed to a large degree by contrivances of the imagination to begin with!

These questions are vitally important to me because I understand (a) the philosophical importance of an objective starting point, (b) the relationship between consciousness and its objects, (c) the need to found one’s worldview on reality as opposed to imagined alternatives, (d) the take-over effect of imagination when reading stories, and (e) the predatory nature religious belief has on an active imagination. Moreover, given presuppositionalism’s ostensible concern for “presuppositions,” the necessary preconditions of knowledge, the ability to “account for” one’s knowledge, etc., I’d think that of all strains of apologetics, this is where once and for all we would find apologists addressing man’s need to distinguish between what they imagine and what their religion calls them to believe, assuming they acknowledge the distinction in the first place. After all, Steve Hays has famously declared that “an imagined Jesus is just an imaginary Jesus.” But who in all of Christendom does not imagine Jesus when they read passages from the gospels, examine his speeches, sermonize his teachings, pray to him, sing to him, worship him, etc.? How do these activities undo the fact that the Jesus they imagine is imaginary? Blank out.

So while the length of my list of questions may cause some to wince (pray I don’t make it longer!), I don’t see how anyone could think the concerns overall that I raise in my questions are at all unreasonable, especially given certain off-the-cuff statements apologists have made.

For example, Christian apologist Mike Licona, in speaking about the resurrection story found in the New Testament, stated outright “I want it to be true.” Well, that’s motivation to believe something.

Elsewhere, in a public debate with Jeff Lowder, Christian apologist Phil Fernandes, in a rather unscripted moment, blurted out "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." Here I take Fernandes to be speaking at least on behalf of himself, since he uses the first person “we” here; even if he really meant to denote non-believers, he does include himself. So it’s an admission of sorts that he is susceptible to the same self-deception he wants to accuse others of indulging.

Finally, in his book Apologetics to the Glory of God, presuppositionalist John Frame writes “A person with a wish to be fulfilled is often on the road to belief” (p. 37). And while Frame goes on to insist that religious faith is not wish-fulfillment, he does explicitly couple wishing and belief here, and he’s clearly got company.

Wanting Christianity to be true, lying to ourselves and interpreting evidences according to our preferences, getting on “the road to belief” via wishing, etc., all openly scream out “Subjectivism!” If an atheist were to make statements of this sort on behalf of their non-belief, no doubt apologists would be all too pleased to cite them repeatedly and at full volume. But in fact, statements like this not only give us a clue to some of the motivations underlying religious devotion, but also a glimpse into the operative (as opposed to professed) epistemological assumptions involved in rationalizing religious belief in the mind of the believer. If the religious view of the world does in fact assume the metaphysical primacy of consciousness (cf. wishing makes it so, believing makes it true, objects of consciousness conform to the contents of consciousness, etc.), then we would expect, when the going gets rough at any rate, to find believers appealing to subjectivist epistemology, for such appeals would at least be consistent with the assumption of metaphysical subjectivism inherent in theism. But, from what I have found consistently and without exception in my experience, human consciousness does not have the power Christians imagine their god’s consciousness has – e.g., the ability to wish material objects into existence, to alter the nature of mind-independent objects by intentions alone, etc. And not only human consciousness – indeed, no specimen of consciousness found in the world possesses any such power. But these facts do not stop us from imagining such a consciousness! If only believers would explicitly grasp the principle that their epistemology needs to be consistent with the nature of their own consciousness (cf. Dawson’s Razor)!

On a more general note, it should be clear from the questions I’ve listed above that, in reviewing books of this sort, my objective per se is not to critique its structure or writing style, gauge its tone or its use of figurative language. Rather, my focus is primarily on its content relative to the goal of vindicating Christianity given the concerns I’ve developed and raised against Christianity through my own research and writing. I already know that James Anderson is not a sloppy writer, but I also know from the writings of his which I have examined that he’s as prone to overlooking (perhaps even dismissing?) the concerns I’ve raised in my criticisms of Christianity and Christian apologetics as other apologists have been, which I find to be disappointing, though not surprising. But, perhaps James will sick one of his students on me for extra credit. In fact, if Anderson himself will not interact with my questions and points of rebuttal, I would welcome one of his students to enter into dialogue here. If Christianity is true, then there should be no fear or reluctance in doing so.

One thing which did stand out to me when I first opened the book, is the dedication Anderson gives at the beginning of the book. It reads as follows:
to Eilidh, Erin and Luke: Three proofs of God’s existence
which I think is very endearing, actually, though we need to overlook the absence of the Oxford comma. These are no doubt the names of his children, and if a believer needed a proof of a god, why look any further? In fact, why not just point to one’s children and forego the arguments whose conclusions stand utterly inert unless one engages his imagination? Unlike arguments, children are living gems, and they can challenge us older folks in such delightful ways.

Now unlike Anderson, I have only one child, a daughter. And, also unlike Anderson, I don’t think of my daughter as a proof of the existence of something that’s available to me only by means of my imagination. Rather, I think of her as my greatest creation, for she is in fact a bearer of not only my image, but also my name, my fatherly love, and my DNA (and I have the test results to prove that!). By referring to myself as her creator, I am not expressing hubris – I leave that to theists to do on the part of the god they imagine. Rather, I’m declaring my role and responsibility as her father, which I embrace with all the conviction and passion within me. For I didn’t just snap my fingers or make a wish and – Poof! – my daughter came into being ex nihilo as a finished product. No, quite the contrary, her development is something I have labored on, as has her mother, my wife, and as with other endeavors I take on, I face the possibility that I can fail, while determined to succeed in flying colors. For me, it’s about taking full ownership of the responsibility of nurturing, teaching and guiding my daughter with all the strength, joy and affection that is within me. There’s no sense of determinism involved here, for my daughter was not put here as a result of some cosmic design or “plan” that’s existed for all eternity, but by the choices and actions which her mother and I have deliberately taken to give her the best life within our means.

So with that, I’m off to digest chapter 1 of James Anderson’s Why Should I Believe Christianity? If I’m not back in a month, send out a search team!

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...


Great questions. I'm looking forward to all the future blog entries from you that could result — perhaps one entry for each question? On the other hand, maybe that's an unrealistic expectation given apologists' dismal track record of: displaying little if any awareness of the importance of such questions and, when they are made aware, not coming close to delivering cogent responses!


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Ydemoc,

Thanks for your comment! I meant to reply to your message a few days ago, but life had other plans!

Even though Anderson's book is actually very bad (so far, worse than I expected, to be honest), I am relishing my experience reading through it because I'm developing some great content in response to much of what Anderson says in it. As I go through each chapter and subsection, I’m taking lots of notes and slowly crafting some solid rebuttals. To be honest, it’s almost like fishing in a barrel, but that’s mostly because I’ve got years of homework under my belt already. I’m able to spot his errors quite quickly.

As for my list of questions, so far I’ve not found that 98% of what I’ve asked has even been anticipated, let alone cogently addressed. But I haven’t reached the end of the book yet, so all hope is not lost! I suppose defenders of the Christian faith might scream “Not fair!” and maybe they’d be right. I mean, examining a text intended to defend a form of mysticism through the lenses of rational philosophy… what could be more unjust???

But to document how well WSIBC measures up against my questions, I was thinking of creating a chart of sorts listing my questions vertically and adding columns for all eight chapters of Anderson’s book, then making a mark (yes = question answered; no = question not answered) for each question in each column. Is my question answered in that chapter? If yes, I can add a page number. If no, then it’s a strike [X] (hopefully Anderson likes baseball!).

After reading through the book and marking up the chart, perhaps a score would then be possible. E.g., out of the 200 slots in the chart (= 25 questions x 8 chapters) representing the sum of opportunities Anderson’s book has to address any of my questions, what’s the final strike ratio? We can even think of it this way: if at any point in any chapter a question is answered, give Anderson the whole row – i.e., 8 points! If a question remains unanswered throughout the whole book, well, come back and play another day?

The question of whether or not the various elements of his overall case are consistent with any answers he might give to those questions, well, that’s another open question!

Originally my plan was to post an entry for each chapter of Anderson’s book. But, that was before I dove into it. If I were to post an entry reacting chapter 4 for example, titled “God is There” (pp. 93-138), it would be so long that it would defy all the norms of standardized blogdom! Chapter 4 contains six subsections which encapsulate arguments for the existence of Anderson’s god. They are presented in sections with the following headings: “God and Existence,” “God and Values,” “God and Morality,” “God and Reason,” “God and Mind,” and “God and Science.” Each of these on their own would make for some very lengthy entries – so many bad assumptions to correct and holes to fill!

I have preliminary considerations that I jotted down and hope to post either today or tomorrow. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving!


Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

You wrote: "Thanks for your comment! I meant to reply to your message a few days ago, but life had other plans!"

Ha! Tell me about it! My workload is so crazy these days (in a good way) that it's difficult for me to find time to read your blog entries in a timely manner, let alone comment on them with more than a paragraph or two.

No sooner had I finished reading "Preliminary Worldview Considerations before Anderson’s WSIBC," than I see you've produced yet another entry! BTW, the "Worldview Considerations" article is not only a great refresher on the role of imagination and the contrast between it and what is actually real, but it also offers what appears to me to be some fresh insights on the topic.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading your most recent entry and also checking out that 'score chart' should you decide to craft it.

Thanks again and hope you had a great Thanksgiving!