Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Missing the Point on Randal's Sermon?

As these tend to go, I had a response post by Randal regarding my critique of his sermon on faith and evidence.

Randal believes I've missed his points and was vitriolic.

Let me begin the reply by going through his three major points, and we'll touch on the last part at the end.


Randal believes I'm reading him uncharitably when I go at length regarding his anecdote about Mormon Missionaries and "bad faith".

No where in the post did I claim it was 'outrageous' that he made Mormon's look bad.  I've no doubt that Randal didn't intend to make the Mormon faith look bad as a whole, though that's exactly how it comes off when he uses them as an example of "bad faith" where you have to give up critical thinking and then goes on to an example of "how Christianity is all about the evidence."

Even granting that Randal didn't intend to make the Mormon's look bad, they still very much do, but the majority of my criticism in that area wasn't so much about Mormonism looking bad as it is a critique of Randal's overall position in the context of "belief based on SRE vs. countervailing evidence".

That model applied to religious beliefs is what I truly found outlandish. It might well extend to arguing over all metaphysical contexts (of which religion is just one sub-type). That is what I largely critiqued in that section.

The part that I found ridiculous was two fold:

1.) Randal's objection can't be about belief based on Subjective Religious Experience (henceforth SRE), since Randal does endorse the idea of religious belief based on SRE is rational based on his acceptance of Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology and a Sensus Divinitatus.  So the issue is about belief based on SRE in the face of counter evidence.

2.) Randal's views are that belief based on SRE is still rational so long as you can come up with rational defeaters to any objections one has to your SRE-belief.  My point is that it's really friggin easy to come up with rational defeaters to any objections you'll get for any of the worlds major religions!

I provided the context in which Mormons could overcome Randal's objections in that specific instance, but then drew parallels to the problems Christians will face when trying to use the same techniques to respond to Jewish criticism of their religion.

So "evidence" isn't going to do a heck of a lot of work when it comes to these topics specifically, not in the way "evidence" is usually handled in contemporary religious discussions.


This is where my frustrations really lie with the sermon and with Randal's response.

Randal says his entire point here is to show that Christian's should use evidence in their evangelism because Jesus and Paul gave evidence in their evangelism.

And here is where Randal misses the point of the meme he's critiquing.

Because Randal started off his sermon referencing this Atheist Meme:
Randal is trying to make the point that religious belief shouldn't forsake evidence when it's requested by a skeptic.  He then gives an example of Christianity being "all about the evidence" because when Jesus made extraordinary claims, he gave extraordinary evidence.

And that is where I lose my mind.

Randal seems to be missing the point of this meme, and the atheist's request for evidence.

Lets look at the Jesus story. It's a clear depiction of conventional logic in the meme:

Jesus makes a number of religious claims, is asked to show evidence, and he does by performing miracles - lots of them!

That's it! That's the baseball!  Jesus showed them the baseball and the response is "Ok, you're right!"

That's what we're asking for in the second case of the meme, and religious people can't deliver! 

We don't want any kind of evidence, we want good evidence. The kind Jesus supposedly provided. The kind the disciples supposedly provided when they worked miracles after Jesus's death.

The problem isn't Randal's idea that evangelists should provide evidence - of course they should, the problem is Randal's example being exactly the kind of evidence skeptics want but never get!

To provide an example, lets go back to Randal's Mormon anecdote: Mormons make the "extraordinary claim" that there was a mass apostasy in the Christian church after the last apostle died. I have to wonder how Randal would respond if in the face of Randal's counter arguments and evidence, the Mormon missionaries stated "But Joseph Smith worked miracles that prove his extraordinary claims are true!".

In fact this isn't far off of what they did tell him: that if he would pray and god would cause a miraculous physical manifestation in him that would be evidence of the truth of their theological claims.

So it's implied in Randal's own anecdote that it's not about offering any old kind of evidence, it's about offering the right kinds of evidence.

As en example consider this even weaker evidence that could have been offered by the Mormon's - that their sweet, honest, loving mothers told them that Mormonism is true. After all, Randal believes that religious belief can be properly basic based on testimony alone. Randal would very likely admit that their Mormon beliefs would be rational for them based on their mothers testimony (probably providing they could give rational answers to Randal's objections), but it's not sufficient for Randal himself. 

You see, the objection isn't just "provide evidence" it's "provide good evidence".  Randal uses the example of the kind of evidence skeptics want, but never get - witnessing miracles.

Michael Shermer

Randal's point about Michael Shermer follows from what I've outlined above, though I should point out where Randal is correct in his criticisms of me first.

In my article I called Michael Shermer a closed minded fool, however if you were to read the article it would be very easy to read it as if I said that Randal was calling Shermer a closed minded fool.  It was not my intention to make it seem this way, but it does all the same and I apologize for doing so.

Randal did nothing of the sort, and in fact frames his criticisms of Shermer in the gentlest terms.  I have gone back and updated the previous article to reflect this, noting the error.

That said, lets get to where Randal goes amiss.

Randal alleges an inconsistency between my miracle framework and my criticism of Michael Shermer, but he's dead wrong.

My miracle framework is what it would take for there to be a kind of universal/objective set of background knowledge available to everyone to be able to use the historical method to justify belief in specific Christian miracles but not others.

This does not preclude, nor is contradictory with the idea of god specifically revealing himself to an individual on the basis of witnessing an extraordinary non-repeatable miracle. If Michael Shermer were to witness a prayer causing a severed limb to spontaneously regrow, I may not have justification for becoming a Christian based on that evidence alone (ie. his testimony of the miracle), but I do think Shermer would be a fool to not convert in the face of such extraordinary evidence.

Consider this example: Lets say my deceased Christian grandparents and in-laws were so saddened in heaven at my family's apostasy that they petitioned god to let them rise again on earth for as long as it took to convince us to return.  God, having morally sufficient reasons that requires my specific family's return to Christianity to achieve certain goods, grants their request.

So they all raise up and manifest in our home, appear to my wife, my daughter, and I, verify all sorts of details that only they would know, we convert and pray with them - and then they vanish after a few hours.

Our conversion would be based on extraordinary evidence, despite the fact that it would be extremely unconvincing to pretty much anyone else. I doubt my own Christian parents would believe it, despite what would be intense emotional testimony from us, and even if they saw us returning to the fold as a result of this extraordinary miracle.

But I wouldn't for a second expect testimony of this miracle to really convince anyone else, let alone the global community that god is real and that Christianity is true.

This is compatible with the idea that we (ie. the rest of society) need repeatable specifically Christian miracles to get the background knowledge necessary to use the historical method to believe specifically Christian miracle claims. God could skip this method and give everyone their own uniquely tailored miracle and that'd work too.

This is analogous with the fact that Christians believe their god must have morally sufficient reasons to grant extraordinary evidence to the apostles and maybe a thousand people from the first century, but not to the billions that have come after.

That's the heart of my objection. Why does doubting Thomas get the epistemic privilege to know that Christ is lord based on extraordinary empirical evidence, but not the rest of us? 

The Apostles and Faith

One problem I had with Randal's sermon was his definition of faith as rational trust vs. what Christians and other apologists say about faith in light of the kinds of objections about miracles I'm raising here. This isn't a criticism of Randal particularly since he's not taken a stance on this topic, but it is a legitimate criticism of his community when it comes to the topic of evidence.

When I lay this kind of requirement out for evidence it'd take to convince me - I get told that on such evidence "real faith is impossible."  I wonder if Randal would agree with that assessment, given his views on rational trust vs. evidence he laid out in his sermon.  What's more, I wonder what those other apologists think about the apostles - did they have faith?  Was it a "real faith?"  Did Thomas have "real faith" after Jesus demonstrated his extraordinary evidence?

If yes, then witnessing miracles doesn't preclude having a real-faith, and so that's not a good objection to why god can't give the rest of us miracles today.

If no, then why does Thomas get to be saved based on not having "real faith" because he had such strong evidence, but the rest of us have to make due without and risk possible damnation as a result? How many more would be like Thomas, now in heaven praising god, if they were given the same evidence and saved by the same grace that doesn't need "real faith" to provide salvation?

On Language

My article on Randal's sermon is one of the few instances I let my self-censorship lax somewhat, because I found it to be infuriating given the topic.  Even then, I made explicitly sure to never use any language to insult Randal, or to insult him at all. I make a point to criticize ideas, not people. In fact I had noted how intelligent he is.

But Randal felt compelled to comment on "the vulgarity of my review" saying:
"Yes, another f-bomb. Indeed, CA swears with a frequency that rivals the Goodfellas screenplay. (And I’m a big Goodfellas fan. Indeed, twenty years ago I had the VHS tape!)".
My review was 2,877 words. The word fuck was used 7 times, shit was used once.  I'd wager that this would be substantially less as a percentage (0.2%) compared to the swearing in Goodfellas.

Ironically, Goodfellas portrayal of cursing isn't far off of my norm. When I was very young, age 0-4, my grandparents were effectively my parents daycare service while they both worked. I was watched by two Sicilian immigrant grandparents, with my grandfather being a retired longshoreman (grandma wasn't any less prolific probably as a result of my grandfather). Lets just say I learned to swear in multiple languages at a fairly young age.

Cursing is a bit of an art form for us in metro north-east US areas. If Randal has issue with 8/2877 as a ratio of swear words in an article, he'd probably faint after observing me in one of the many engineering labs I work in.

However my work gets judged on the basis of its quality, not the amount of swear words used to get through hard technical problems - so it is with actual arguments in an article. (To Randal's credit, he does engage my arguments on their merits and for that I am grateful).

I reject the idea that cursing makes one sound stupid. Being insulting, using fallacies, that "smacks of juvenile enfant terrible rebellion", but not simply using the word fuck for emphasis.

I've worked with some brilliant people in my line of work, many of them former service members whose language reflects that, and the idea that cursing a lot makes you seem stupid is a ridiculous and outdated metric.  It's one I'm quite glad to see abating, though I suspect it'll take longer to effect social circles like the one Randal is in.

Conclusions and Frustrations

Randal concludes by saying that I appreciated what his sermon was about, the idea that faith is rational trust and that evangelists should present evidence in order to be effective.

My point here was to highlight that there's far, far more to the story as his own examples reveal - specifically because it's very much about the kinds of evidence presented, and the failure of religious apologetics to convey that evidence.

We wouldn't need deep (and unresolvable) metaphysical arguments if believers or god could do a limited subset of miracles for us - just like they did in the cases Randal cites as examples.

That's what we skeptics want, and that's not what we get. What's worse, is when this argument is pointed out, one of the canned responses we get from a number of apologists (though not Randal specifically to my knowledge) is that if that were the case then "faith" wouldn't be real - meaning the apostles wouldn't have a real faith either.  One is left wondering why said apostles get epistemic privileges the rest of us aren't afforded from a god that is supposed to love us all equally?

Randal concludes that posts like mine are dispiriting and add to his frustrations regarding doing apologetics as unrewarding.  It gets equally frustrating on the other side.  From my years engaging in this topic as a hobby of sorts what I've learned is that pretty much any metaphysical topic, of which religion is a subset, it's very easy to make your beliefs perfectly defensible from nearly any attack.

That's what Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology does for religious belief, after all.

Skeptics on the other hand have a very easy metric for god to disprove us, perform some miracles like he supposedly did in the old religious texts that almost always seem to not happen any more, or if they do they do in unverifiable ways in far off lands.

When skeptics reject that framework of disproof of our atheism, like Shermer apparently does, I am aggravated because it makes atheism no better a metaphysical position than theism, perfectly immune from evidential revision.

That's not how we should behave as rational skeptics.

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