Monday, May 15, 2017

Responding to Randal's Evidence Sermon

It was odd, but a week ago I saw a Twitter notification that Randal Rauser, an apologist I like and respect, had released an audio sermon about Christianity, Faith, and Evidence.
Since I had a full plate of work that I could do while listening to something somewhat engaging, I decided to give it a listen.
It was absolutely infuriating.
Throughout the entire sermon I kept having the mental image of Joe Pesci yelling “Get the fuck outta here!” as we went from one doozy to another. 

 "You gotta be fuckin kidding me!" also works

This felt rather appropriate, because as one of the cherished Patron Saints of Atheism - George Carlin tells us, praying to Joe Pesci is statistically as effective as praying to god.
Woe betide those who go against Cardinal George

So I wanted to get a post together that goes through what’s wrong with it.
Defining Faith
Randal starts off well enough, stating that faith is best understood as “rational trust” instead of something uncharitable as “belief without evidence” or “believing what you know ain’t true”. 
For myself, I don’t have too much of a problem with faith understood as a synonym for “rational trust”, though as I’ll get to later, it sure as hell seems religious believers – including supposedly well informed apologists will expressly use “faith” in a way that is far more like “belief without evidence” or “belief based solely on subjective religious experience” than a synonym for “rational trust”.
Those Rascally Mormons
Randal then starts going downhill with regards to a story about “bad” religious faith, where one relies completely on subjective religious experience as a basis for their religious beliefs.
The story involves Randal engaging with two Mormon missionaries who approached him.  The Mormon’s spoke about how after the death of the last apostle of Jesus, there was a massive apostasy regarding the teachings of the apostles and what Christians now believe is a result of said apostasy. Of course Joseph Smith had to set the record straight as to the true word of god in the Book of Mormon.
Randal, being a legitimate expert on church history proceeds to lay out a case that at my hearing seems rather odd. He says that we have a litany of succession after the death of John (supposedly the last apostle) of various bishops, finally culminating in the writings of Irenaeus, in the second century who attests that the “tradition of the apostles” was faithfully passed down over the last 150 years.
The missionaries, in the face of what I’d imagine was a strong presentation from Randal say that if Randal were to pray and ask god to reveal the truth about the Book of Mormon, Randal would have a “burning in his bosom” that would let him know it was true. 
Randal says that even if that were the case, he’d still have this other evidence that Mormonism was false and so if he were to believe in Mormonism, he’d be giving up reason and evidence to believe based on a prayer and subjective religious experience.
Some Problems
Here is where I have to raise some of my “Get the fuck outta here!” moments.
The Mormons come off looking pretty bad in this story, forsaking evidence and appealing to subjective religious experience to justify their beliefs.  But this isn’t exactly fair. We’re talking about Mormon missionaries, usually very young men (about 18) who go through some classes and are sent on mandatory mission trips around the world going up against a very intelligent PhD Theologian who teaches at a seminary.
I’m no PhD, but I happen to know a pretty good amount about philosophy of religion, apologetics, theology, and counter-apologetics.  I have had my own interactions with Christian, Mormon, and Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries – pastors in the middle of getting their M.Div’s trying to get me back into the church.  I’ve been able to better handle the apologetic arguments than they have and I’ve certainly had the statement “if you pray about it and ask god to reveal it to you, he will!”
This isn’t a failing of Mormonism so much as it is the escape hatch of a missionary who is outwitted by a skeptic of their religion.
The next thing that raised my ire is that Randal is a defender of Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology (RE), and specifically the Sensus Divinitatus (SD).  That is he finds it rational to believe that Christianity is true on the basis of the subjective religious experience of feeling god reveal himself - so subjective religious experience is enough to base ones religion on after all. 
Now to be charitable, RE says that believers must be able to provide defeaters for any counter evidence that contradicts the revelations of the SD – and Randal’s objection to Mormonism is carefully worded: He’d have to believe based on subjective experience over evidence that points to the falsity of that belief.
But do Mormon’s have rational responses to Randal’s evidence in the same way a Christian has rational responses to things like the Problem of Evil?
As it turns out, yes they do.  There’s quite a bit of Mormon apologetics, a quick Google search revealed this article on the official LDS website and I’m sure there’s plenty more on the topic.
It brings in a specific way of reading the end of the New Testament, which puts the writings of early church fathers in a specific context which lends itself to supporting Mormon belief in the apostasy.  It also points out that there’s quite a few years where history is very sketchy in terms of the writings of the early church and what we actually have in terms of copies of that writing.  I can see plenty of space for rational arguments about corrupt apostates tinkering with what was truly written by these church fathers.
This schism between Mormon’s and Christians seems to be rather parallel to the debates Christian apologists with Jewish scholars as itrelates to all the supposed prophecies in the Old Testament that Jesus fulfills or fails to fulfill where it is the Christians arguing for specific contexts and readings of the Old Testament which support the interpretations that allow one to believe Jesus fulfilled a prophecy.
That is to say, that when we really start digging we’re going to get into all sorts of hairy issues in terms of how best to interpret the various texts and what the appropriate context to read them in is supposed to be – things will end up clear as mud. 
TL;DR - All sides will be able to find their rational defeaters to any counter evidence the other religion will bring up, and so will be able to maintain the faith based on subjective religious experience.

Randal’s rejection of a choice between Faith and Evidence
Randal gets into the meat of his sermon – stating that the Christian does not have to choose between faith and evidence.  He makes three points:
1.)    Jesus in his life and ministry shows the importance of evidence
2.)    Jesus shows us the limits of evidence
3.)    Jesus shows us the right response to evidence
The first point is where I have a rapid succession of Joe Pesci “Get the fuck outta here!” moments.
Randal says that Jesus makes some extraordinary claims, namely that he is god and created the world, but Jesus doesn’t leave it at “Just take my word for it.”  No says Randal, Jesus provides evidence that he is god! Randal specifically points out that Jesus’s miracles are evidence from god that what he is saying is true.  He specifically does this after the supposed resurrection.
Get the fuck outta here!
No shit miracles like that would be evidence to the truth of theological claims!
Start giving me some specific, unique, repeatable Christian miracles that I can fucking witness and I’ll start believing! I would tear at my clothes and fall to my knees in repentance! I would renounce my own moral intuition based objections to the Christian moral doctrines and worship the living god.
But we don’t have that, not even close! Where can I see walking on water? Immediate dramatic healing of the lame? Reattaching severed ears? Multiplying of food, creation of wine out of water, walking through walls, or raising the dead?
At best we get the same kind of weak sauce miracle claims that follow every other religion where prayers are answered via naturalistic methods, nothing repeatable.
And here is where I raise my objection to Randal’s definition of faith as rational trust, because this kind of miracle claim thing is ground I’ve tread before.
Note I'm not arguing that it's irrational to be a Christian, rather that we don't have the evidence to support a historical method for believing Christian miracle claims.
Here’s a summary of my “miracle framework” from that post:
If you want me to believe the historical miracle claims of Christianity, the methods of history are going to require that I have contemporary experience to form my background knowledge that Christian miracles occur.
The example I like to give is this: Let’s forget all the world-impacting miracles like healing the sick, raising the dead, and walking on water.  Let’s go with something definitely miraculous: Catholic priests (and only Catholic priests in good standing, no Protestants or Pedophiles) at every single mass perform a communion miracle.  To use a less grisly example than I’ve done in the past – let’s say they are able to pour water into a clear glass, pray over the sacrament and have it change into wine before the eyes of all. What’s more the cup never runs out throughout the communion! All who are present are always able to sip from the cup and it will not empty until the last Christian is able to take their communion – then the wine evaporates at the end of a prayer.
Let’s say that happens every mass, repeatable under controlled conditions and tests (after all, it’s the reverence and dedication of the priests & congregation that matter) – and all other world religions get the weak sauce miracles they all lay claim to now.
Then I’d be justified in accepting Christian historical miracle claims because I’d have very strong evidence that Christian miracles occur.
But when I mention this, apologist David Marshall actually says that under these conditions “real faith is impossible!” All because god would be tasteless and not allow people the freedom to act, without any real adventure, and miracles would lose their drama. (yes, he actually said that last line).
I have to wonder, would Randal or Marshall say that the disciples (who supposedly worked miracles in Jesus’s name) and Jesus’s contemporaries who witnessed the litany of miracles Jesus supposedly performed in his ministry lack real faith?
After all, if faith is really just synonym for “rational trust”, then the aesthetics wouldn’t have a damn thing to do with it.  A faith in this world, the world we’d expect if god exists and Christianity is true – then we’d absolutely have rational trust based on evidence, real faith per Randal’s definition anyway.
The Limits of Evidence
Next we skip gears, to Randal’s exposition about the limits of evidence.  He tells the story about Jesus miraculously healing on the Sabbath, and the Pharisee’s trying to entrap him by saying what he’s doing is unlawful.  Jesus rebukes them and wins the rhetorical match with them going away unable to answer, but then instead of evaluating the evidence the Pharisee’s plot to kill Jesus.  Randal then goes on to say that this can be an example of the backfire effect, where you present too much evidence for a case and people predisposed to be against the truth become more strongly dug-in for their beliefs.
For my part, I see this story along with other similar stories of people witnessing miracles of Jesus, like the guards at the resurrection who supposedly are paid off to say the disciples stole the body – as evidence that the stories are simply made up.  What kind of person can observe literal miracles, especially someone rising on their own from the dead angels and glory galore – and then deciding to take some cash and say it never happened?
This of course can be spun either way, but Randal moves on to one of his favorite stories about Michael Shermer being a closed minded fool on an apologetics podcast. [Editors Note: I am the one calling Michael Shermer a closed minded fool here, not Randal - who takes pains to avoid any such insult and frames his criticism of Shermer in the gentlest tones]. 

When asked what it would take to convince Shermer that god is real, he replies praying and immediately healing an amputee.  Then later he retracts it, saying that such a healing would only be new evidence that humans can spontaneously regrow limbs.
I’ve no defense of Shermer here, he’s being stupid. However I would note that on my proposed miracle framework, where we have repeatable, verifiable miracles only happening with one religion – we get enough background knowledge to trust historical miracle claims and believe that a god exists. 

People like Shermer could still exist, but they'd look like Flat Earthers or Young Earth Creationists - Laughing stocks defying mountains of empirical, repeatable evidence.
That all said, I believe Randal’s point about the limits of evidence works against his overall case. After all, if Randal is correct and the backfire effect would trigger, and there really are people like Shermer out there who would disbelieve in the face of my miracle framework – then the apologetic response to say that IF god revealed himself in that consistent way, there would be no room for people to truly have a real faith because we wouldn’t have a choice. 
So you have to ask yourself, does it seem more likely that there would be more committed Christians if the miracle framework I described previously were our reality or the one where apologists have to grant that it seems at least believable that there is no god, or it’s not at all clear what kind of god exists even if one accepted theism?
It seems far more plausible to think there’d be more Christians on a continual miracle framework, and given Randal’s views on the limits of evidence, people would still have a mechanism to disbelieve.   
The Right Response to Evidence
Randal ends his sermon as all good preachers do by coming back to his opening story about doubting Thomas and the correct response to evidence.  He says that Thomas wasn’t being rational given all the evidence that he had. Thomas had witnessed all of Jesus’s supposed miracles, Jesus explicitly told him he’d be murdered and would rise again in 3 days, and then the disciples who he’s trusted for the entire ministry are telling him that Jesus has indeed risen – yet Thomas remained skeptical until he had the best kind of evidence – firsthand experience of the risen Jesus.  Randal argues that given Thomas’s situation, he should have believed and honestly I’d agree with him – if all that stuff actually happened.
Here’s the thing, I don’t think it happened.  The doubting Thomas story is only in John, the one that diverges the most from the earliest accounts in Mark, which are mostly repeated in Matthew and Luke. What’s more, much like the supposed Pharisee’s and Roman guards who witnessed Jesus’s miracles and then decided to plot to kill him or lie about it – it just beggars belief.  It sounds like this story is a mythical addition, much like many other parts of John’s gospel.
After all, the point is if you want me to believe these outlandish miracle accounts, replete with absolute morons who don’t just reject far off evidence of scientific reports they’re ideologically disposed to dislike – they’re discarding direct miracles observed with their own eyes.
I know for myself I’d believe if I had the miracles to back up the stories, but I don’t.  At best there’s subjective religious experience, just like what millions of Mormons claim backs up their faith.
The actual handling of evidence and trust that Randal engages in is largely on point, my “Get the fuck outta here!” reactions are based on the idea that we have anything remotely like the kind of evidence Randal refers to. I’d completely agree that Christian faith is based on a bevy of evidence if we lived in a world where my miracle framework was true, or if I could witness a Jesus walking around now having stuck around for two millennia.
But that’s not what Christians have. They have stories of miracles, and disciples who used to work miracles, but they’ve conveniently stopped, or only happen in far off places, and never in repeatable controlled conditions.
So Randal is right about evidence and belief, he just doesn’t have the evidence necessary to justify belief in his religion compared to a host of others.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know why you should like and respect him. Unless I am mistaken, he believes people (including you) who hear about and then reject Christ will be punished. He may not believe in eternal conscious torment, but I believe he believes in punishment. Why should you like and respect someone who believes you will be punished for holding the worldview you hold.