Day 4: Talking to Atheists

Yesterday marked the fourth day of our summer evangelism schedule. Three co-labourers joined me in spreading the gospel in Don Mills – what a joy it is to strive side by side for the faith of the gospel!  Out of the four substantial conversations I had, the first three were with atheists (back to back to back). Here is an abbreviated summary of the conversations:

God is a Myth

Arthur and I met an elderly lady at the street corner. We made some small talk but quickly asked her about her thoughts on Jesus and her religious background. She said she was an atheist. For her, any stories about God = myth. She grew up in a United Church, was very involved, but eventually parted ways, convinced that Christianity isn’t based on truth but fancy ideas. She said, “It’s for the weak.” (She speaks better than she knows; cf. Mt 5:3).

She kept saying, “I don’t need God,” and “I’m fine.” Eventually I responded (gently, yet firmly) with, “Do you think you’ll be saying that on your death bed?” I went on, “Look, everyone dies; you will die. I will die. And judgement is coming. Are you prepared for that?” My comments on death must have triggered her thoughts of funerals. She replied, “You know, of all the funerals I go to these days, they don’t really mention God much any more. They’re memorials about the persons life.” (She went on to speak of how nice that is). She basically told us that times are changing; people are finally coming to terms with reality; there is no God. Christianity (and other religions) is basically for stupid people who can’t live with the reality that there is no God, no hope after death and so on.

We tried to talk to her about the historical facts about Jesus, but she wouldn’t have it; she seriously questions the reliability of Scripture. It’s all mythology in her mind. We had some other questions for her as we sought to engage her and weaken her confidence in her atheism. I told her that she is suppressing the truth about God, but in a candid way she simply told us, “good luck as you talk to others; better luck with someone else.” May God show her that she needs him.

Scientific Atheism

Shortly thereafter, we approached another lady whose atheism was largely governed by her allegiance to science. I talked to her for a while about the usefulness and goodness of science. However, I also talked about it’s limitations, namely when nailing down issues of origins. The scientific method of hypothesis, observation, analysis and conclusion suffers in the study of origins; it’s too late to observe! She agreed and admitted that the theistic view of the origins of the world is no irrational. In fact, she said, “I know science and Christianity is compatible.” Even so, she prefers the atheistic model.

I spent some time arguing for a Creator based on the design in the world and then started to talk to her about morality. I asked her, “What is the basis for morality?” She said that it is cultural. And just as I was arguing for the incoherence and impossibility of her position, the bus arrived. I gave her some good Christian literature.

May the Lord show her that he is the Maker of heaven and earth. And may she come to worship the Son, who is before all things and in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17).

“I Don’t Care” Atheism

Later on, I met a young man waiting for his bus. He was hard, tough and rugged. But he was friendly enough to carry on a conversation.  I could tell it was an inner struggle for him to keep talking with me, but by the grace of God he did. He told me he was an atheist, had no religious background and didn’t really care about Jesus or anything about God.

When he told me he was an atheist, I asked him what he thought of Jesus. With a cool and slightly annoyed spirit, he said, “Well, maybe if he’d drop down here and say hello, I’d say, ‘What’s up.'” I responded, “You think that’s what it would take? Well, what if he did, but not only that, what would you do if he told you that he is from God, Christianity is the truth and you must follow him. Would you?” He said, “I don’t know.” (Thinking of Luke 16, I am doubtful that he would). He assured me that he doesn’t care about these things. He told me that needs to work and provide for his family; that’s it. He said, “Another day another dollar.”

I asked him what he cares about. He said, “family.” I affirmed the value of family and told him straight up: “Look, 10 years ago, there’s no way I’d be on the streets talking to people about Jesus. Something happened to me. I started to follow Jesus, but I didn’t do it without reason. There are reasons that lead me to follow Christ. Namely, that it’s true. This stuff isn’t just in my head; it’s real. God, Jesus the truth of Christianity; this stuff just is, and I’m gripped by these realities.”

He said, “What about all the other religions. So they’re all wrong?” I said, “Jesus said he’s the only way to God. And I believe it. But hey, he’s either right or he’s wrong. The claim may sound arrogant, but it’s not arrogant if it’s true.”  He saw the logic yet still seemed quite sceptical.

Before long, he posed another objection, “But what about the Old and New Testaments; they teach different messages.” (I think he meant to say: “They are inconsistent”). I told him, “Look, the Old Testament is made up of 39 books and the main message can be summed up in one sentence: ‘Somebody’s coming.’ God had made a number of promises to his people. And the New Testament can basically be summed up in one sentence as well: ‘I’m here!’ God kept his promises. Jesus is the One who God has promised, and he brought salvation for us, those who have sinned and rebelled against him.”

The bus soon came and as I was warning him about the judgement to come, he said, “I don’t give a s#@t.” Then he said good bye. My heart really mourned over his hardness of heart. I believer Jesus is powerful to soften it. My goal was to put a stone is his shoe. By the grace of God, I hope it stays in there!

Well, that is a brief summary of part of Day 4. We had other more encouraging conversations with people who seemed more receptive, but I felt it wise to share about the difficulties of my conversations with atheists. Oh how they need the gospel and a worldview that can make sense of it! May the Spirit work in their minds and hearts.

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11 responses to “Day 4: Talking to Atheists

  1. Just out of interest what are your reasons for believing in the truth of scripture? By which I mean, is your belief that what the new testament (and parts of or all of the old testament) is true based upon any kind of historical evidence, or do you simply take it ‘on faith’ (as in, you believe in it because you feel it to be true, without looking for evidence etc.)?

    • Hello, thanks for question. I appreciate you taking the time to read my post and comment. As for your question, it sounds like you are assuming the separation of reason and faith. Please correct me if I am misunderstanding you, but it sounds like you are asking if my belief in the Bible is based on reasonable evidence or faith. I think that is a false dichotomy. Faith is reasonable trust. Faith and reason ought not to be mutually exclusive. So, I am not sure how to categorize my response, but let me share what I would call my reasonable trust in the Bible. Here are 6 points in no particular order.

      1) I believe the Scripture is true and the Word of God because it says it is (see 2 Timothy 3:16). Usually historical documents are presumed reliable unless there’s good reason to doubt them. The only reason I could see myself doubting would be if I had a view of the world that excludes the possibility of the supernatural. In that case, I wouldn’t believe it. But, then again, in that case, the Bible would automatically assumed to be wrong because of my preconceived ideas about the impossibility of the supernatural … which is not an open minded approach to a book that says it is God’s Word.

      2) Jesus thinks the Bible is true and God’s Word (See Mt 4:1-11; 13:14-15; 21:12-16; and many more examples). This argument supports the reliability of the OT more than the NT. But when it come to my view of the OT, I do not want to disagree with Jesus.

      3) The Bible makes good on its claim. The Bible is God’s self-revelation that unfolds progressively through history. This recorded history is redemptive in its nature. God is saving many people. This redemptive history takes place across the OT and NT with Jesus as the central figure that unifies the whole of Scripture. The coherence and wisdom of Scripture gives me good reason to believe it is God’s Word (and true).

      4) Concerning historical evidence, especially in terms of the manuscript evidence and the transmission of the text, the NT is unparalleled in comparison to other ancient works. We have 5600 handwritten manuscripts in Greek, 10000 in Latin, and 5000 in other languages, all from the 2nd through 14th century. Less than 1% of the variations are significant (most being word order and spelling issues) and the thorough science of textual criticism is reliable to preserve what the original copy said. If we accept Thucydides, Aristotle and Plato, how much more the NT?

      5) I believe it’s true because of my encounter with it (when I come to Scripture on its own terms). Coming to the Bible with a mind that assumes the truth of Scripture and with an openness to allow it to challenge and correct my thinking, and asking God to reveal himself to me through the reading, I continue to encounter God in and through Scripture (and this, to my joy).

      6) God and His Word (the Bible) is the starting point of my thinking. And what gives me much confidence in the truthfulness of Scripture is that this starting point “provides the necessary preconditions for intelligible experience and meaningful thought” (as Greg Bahnsen put it). Every argument must end with a self-authenticating starting point. This is true with Scripture.

      I hope that satisfies your interest. I am curious, do you believe in the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture? I’m interested to know your reasons are (either way).
      Thank you kindly,
      Paul

  2. Hi, thanks for your response.

    I suppose we have a terminological worry here with the word ‘faith’ and the way it connects up with reasons for belief. If we take ‘reasons for belief in a proposition P’ to mean ‘things which show P to be true’ or ‘things which justify the formation of a belief that P’ then it looks like we do get a distinction between faith and reasoned belief: Reasoned belief is formed on the basis of observable or reliable evidence, whereas faith that P, is belief in P without the need for reliable evidence that P is true.

    This seems to be a distinction that is built into theology generally with faith being singled out as a more virtuous form of belief formation that the reasoned alternative: For instance, its often argued that God will not prove his existence because such would remove our ability to have faith in his existence (we would be forced by evidence into belief in God).

    At any rate, it looks like you have some reasons which you take to justify a belief in God, it’s not entirely faith based. That said, I don’t think the reasons you cite genuinely justify a belief in the scriptures.

    1, 2 and to some extent 3 I think could generally be taken to be expressing the same point: The Bible is true because the Bible says the Bible is true (in 2 and 3, if I take you correctly, its a little more like, the Bible says certain things will happen and then later reports that those things did in fact happen). But this isn’t a reason for belief in the Bible at all. Suppose in the preface of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was stated that the book was a true account (we could suppose further that it made predictions in the first book which it describes as being true predictions in later books); would you have a reason to believe that The Lord of the Rings is a true story? No, we have no reason to believe that what it says about its truth is reliable (that is the very thing in question!). Similarly, the Bible’s stating it is true cannot provide a reason for believing that it is true, as the truth of this statement (along with all the other statements in the bible) is what is under scrutiny.

    With 4. the problem seems to be not: why should we believe that the writings we have now are basically the same as the original documents? but rather, why should we think those original documents were true accounts. As you acknowledge, the earliest writings about Jesus can be dated to around 100AD (some people say 70AD others 130AD as I understand it), it’s just not credible to suppose that in a culture in which stories were passed by work of mouth and the average life expectancy was about 30 (from what I can gather from the writings of modern historians) to suppose that a story only written down 70 years after it was first told to be accurate. That’s two generations remember, people can barely keep a story straight from one day to the next, let alone over 70 years and passed down two generations.

    5. Seems to be question begging: Why should I believe the bible? because if I assume it is true then I experience it as being true. But that’s just circular (consider: If I assume that LotR is true then LotR will appear to be true – on the basis of that assumption – therefore I should believe that LotR is true)

    Difficult what to make of 6. In part it looks to be saying the same as 5. Why believe the bible is true? because if you take that as your starting point then it will be true… Is the suggestion also that you cannot have intelligible thoughts about the world unless you take the bible as your starting point? I think that is obviously false, given that many people have intelligible thoughts about reality who do not believe in the Christian scriptures.

    Personally, I suppose you have guessed by this point, I don’t believe that the scriptures are true, my reasons being that I see no justification for such a belief.

    I was raised as a Catholic and, funnily enough, it was learning more about the bible that destroyed my faith: It’s full of contradictions, and I see no principled way of picking out the bits that we should believe in.

    Also, the context of its writing: Constantine’s desire for a religion for his empire and approaching the early church fathers to consolidate their views into one consistent religion for instance. It strikes me that a book that was composed by a committee cannot be taken to contain irrefutable truth (knowing what committees are like).

    I certainly don’t think its necessary for understanding the world (for explaining the worlds existence, set up, or for morality) in fact I think the Bible does an especially poor job on that front.

    • Hi P, thanks for your response to my response. I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to correspond (and argue … in a good way) about such an important topic. I want to clarify terms here. When I speak of faith (with you), I am referring to ‘warranted’ faith, not unwarranted faith. This doesn’t negate the existence of ‘unwarranted’ faith. But when I speak of my faith in the reliability of Scripture, I am speaking of warranted trust. You want to maintain a distinction between faith and reason. I’m simply saying that the two are not mutually exclusive. For example, you wrote that “Reasoned belief is formed on the basis of observable or reliable evidence.” Please help me to understand you better, for maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but it sounds like you are making a truth statement about reasoned belief. Yet, how do you prove the truth of that statement by observation? In other words, it seems like your view of “reasoned belief” cannot be accepted apart from some degree of faith (as I understand your definition of faith). Does my argument make sense?

      I’m not sure what theology you’ve studied in the past, but I don’t agree with that school of theology either. Here is what I think: God has and is proving his existence. In Scripture we find that God (and the human authors) are concerned with the “certainty concerning the things [we] have been taught” (Luke 1:4) and “many proofs” (Acts 1:3), and giving “reason for the hope” that we have (1 Peter 5:15). Also, we find in Scripture that, “what can be known about God is plain to [us], because God has shown it to [us]. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So [we] are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20). Now, obviously this may not satisfy you, but my point here is modest: the Bible teaches and promotes “reason” and “proof” in the call to faith. Do you agree?

      No where to go from here? Well, let me interact with your criticisms of my 6 points (6 points). Thereafter, I will engage with your four final paragraphs (final four).

      6 Points

      You are right. I am saying the Bible is true because it says it is true. I know that at first glance, the reason seems really weak. But let me respond to what you said. You said, “But this isn’t a reason for belief in the Bible at all.” I disagree. If the Bible did not claim to be Word of God, I would not have good reason to believe it. Or, if it said that it is not the Word of God, again, I would not have good reason to believe it is. However, it does claim to be the Word of God. This may not convince you that it is, but it certainly is “a” reason for belief in it. In fact, hypothetically speaking, if people say the Bible is the Word of God, that would be the first bit of evidence I would look for … does it say it is? Imagine it didn’t?

      Moving on to your objection with point 4, you asked “why should we think those original documents were true accounts?” I say this gently, and I am not sure the degree to which you have studied methods in historical research, but the better way of learning truth from the past (and present for that matter) is always, “why shouldn’t we take these accounts to be true?”

      Now, based on what you wrote about contradictions in the Bible, it’s obvious, you have reasons for what you believe. But, before I ask you about your reasons, I want to respond to your objection to point 5. You’ve discounted my justification saying that I’m guilty of circular reasoning. But please think about this: All arguments chains end somewhere. What we look for in arguments in validity, coherence, good inference, and soundness. When dealing with the nature of the Bible’s claim, to be the authoritative Word of God, we either have to start presupposing it is, or we work with presuppositions contrary to its claim. How else can we approach it? There is no neutral ground. If it’s true, then not submitting to is is immoral thought. If it’s not true, this ought to be proved working within the confines of it’s claim (let’s be open and presuppose God is all powerful, eternal, all wise and good, as the Bible claims). Otherwise, it is proven false from the outset. And this argument will also be guilty of circular reasoning in the same way. How fair is that in dealing with such a grand claim? You may reply this way: it’s reliability is irrefutable if we start with this presupposition. I disagree. If we start with this presupposition and find the Bible with clear logical contradictions and incoherence, then faith in it would be unwarranted. For example, if the Bible states God is always good, but then also states: God is not always good, then we have a clear contradiction, and it is suspect to its claim to be a message of truth. However, I must add, if we find some mysteries, that would be expected; for the Bible claims that God is infinite and we are finite … so obviously, there will be things about God that will not be able to understand, but this wouldn’t disprove the reliability of the Bible, it would only add coherence to what it claims.

      When I look at your arguments for not accepting the reliability of Scripture, it appears (key word, “appears”) as though the root issue is not evidence, but world view (and presuppositions). I appears (based on what you have written) that you are presupposing naturalism as you approach the argument at hand. For example, you argue against the accurate transmission of the text, but it seems like you do it presupposing naturalism. Non-Christians know that if we grant that God is all powerful, it is not only possible, but easy for him to safeguard the accuracy of the original manuscripts. However, if we don’t presuppose this view of God, then no amount of historical evidence may ever suffice. What amount of better historical evidence would be necessary for you to trust, at the very least, the historical reliability of the Scriptures? I am curious to know at this point: do you agree that the deeper issue in our disagreement lays at the foundations of our starting points and presuppositions? What is your starting point?

      Final Four

      You said that the Bible is full of contradictions. For the sake of argument, can you explain two of them (or three if you like)? I would like to examine your claim.

      Concerning the last paragraph, I want to clarify something. I do not believe that presupposing the truth of the Bible is the only way of explaining the world’s existence and for morality. I do believe that presupposing it’s truthfulness is required for a logically robust view of the world that can best explain and answer (without serious logical problems) the world as we know it. You mentioned “morality.” I am curious to know two things on this front: how does the Bible do a poor job here? And, what is your view on morality? I want to test to see if your view is more logically robust.

      I look forward to hearing your response.
      Thank you so much for taking the time to correspond with me,
      Paul

  3. Pumpkin von Bandersnatch, you bring up some interesting points. I just want to focus on one of your stated reasons for your hesitancy to accept the NT as authoritative. You said,

    Also, the context of its writing: Constantine’s desire for a religion for
    his empire and approaching the early church fathers to consolidate
    their views into one consistent religion for instance. It strikes me that a
    book that was composed by a committee cannot be taken to contain
    irrefutable truth (knowing what committees are like).

    When you say “the context of writing”, I assume you really mean the context of canonizing. I assume you don’t think that a “committee” organized by Constantine actually wrote the NT documents. Correct me if I am wrong. Are you referring to Constantine’s commissioning Eusebius to prepare 50 copies of scripture?

    Of course, Constantine’s commission influenced the canonization process. (Most) Christians don’t argue that the NT canon was dropped from the sky and uninfluenced by historical factors. We just believe that the canonization process, including Constantine’s influence, was divinely guided. Constantine instructed Eusebius to make “fifty copies of the sacred Scriptures, the provision and use of which you know to be most needful for the instruction of the Church”. Even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that you are correct in saying that Constantine’s motivation for this is a unified religion for his empire, wouldn’t it make most sense for the NT writings that he selects to be the exact writings which the church largely agreed upon already (and which Eusebius knew the church largely agreed upon already)?

    Lastly, and I think most importantly, you say that “It strikes me that a book that was composed by a committee cannot be taken to contain irrefutable truth”. Why not? I do not see anything in your premise that supports your conclusion. Again, I assume that here you mean “canonized” instead of “composed”. But, your argument is also anachronistic. You argue from your experience of committees and then project your modern experience onto ancient committees assuming that they operate in the same way. Furthermore, it was not any ONE committee or council that decided what was in and what was out.

  4. P, I know you have a lot to respond to but I just want to point out two things for clarity.

    1) as Paul mentioned, every worldview begins somewhere, or presupposes something. Are you not starting/presupposing logic?

    2) the council of Nicea/Constantine as RK mentioned did not decide what the cannon was. This is a myth popularized by Dan Brown. The cannon was in development/recognition before and after Constantine. The first list of canonical books mirroring today’s new testament cannon is from Athanasius’ 39th festal letter. This proves that Constantine did not decide the cannon. The reality is the cannon was not decided at Nicea or by Constantine.

  5. Thanks for your replies everyone. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. I was trying to be thorough and then managed to lose the word document containing the essay I’d been writing back.

    I’ll try to be a little bit more brief this time round:

    On Faith vs Belief

    Ok, so my worry here is that we might not have a meaningful distinction between warranted faith and justified belief: It looks like beliefs are governed by various norms: if you believe that P and you believe that if P then Q, then it seems you are obliged to form the belief that Q. Similarly, if you believe that P, that Q and that if Q then not-P, it looks as though you’re going to have to revise at least one of those beliefs; there is pressure, that is, to have all of your beliefs cohere. What’s more, beliefs such as these seem to rely on some kind of justification: If you believe P because Q, and I show you that Q isn’t actually true, it looks like you lose your reason for believing in P and are therefore obliged to stop believing that P. (Take for instance that you believe that the world is going to end because (and only because) a meteor is going to hit the earth; I then show you that a meteor is not going to hit the earth; it looks like you’d be flouting the norms of belief by holding on to your belief that the world will end in spite of the removal of your justification.

    Now, these norms are observations about the way the mental state ‘belief’ works, and we can hopefully see that just by introspection, so I’m afraid I don’t understand your point about being unable to justify a claim such as ‘beliefs are formed on the basis of evidence” which perhaps could be more aptly put as ‘beliefs are subject to certain norms.’ Partly that just seems a conceptual matter, but also we can observe beliefs being formed in accordance with those norms. Remember, I’m trying to make a definitional point here about what belief and faith is and how those two things appear to operate, not a meta-justification point about whether norms of belief are themselves justified.

    You say that you think of your faith as warranted. Now I’m just not sure what work warranted is supposed to be doing here: If warranted faith is governed by the same norms as belief, then it looks like it will just be belief. If it isn’t then it doesn’t look like it will be formed on the basis of evidence. I’m afraid I just don’t understand what warranted faith or trust are supposed to be if they aren’t either beliefs justified by evidence, or beliefs without firm evidential justification.

    I don’t think that the Bible really does promote reason and proof unfortunately; at least, not in the general sense of those words. I’m not sure how people are supposed to perceive God’s invisible power in order to prove that he exists. If his power is invisible, then by definition you can’t perceive it directly. Now, the thought might be, we can see it indirectly, but that just isn’t proof: it requires some connecting beliefs, and the Bible doesn’t seem to do anything other than state that God exists and that he is divine and all powerful, t doesn’t present reasons for believing that this is the case (that has mainly been the realm of the theologian and philosopher of religion).

    Ok, on to the 6 points:

    Reasons for Belief

    Ok, it looks like we’re lumping together two concepts here: reason for belief and reliability of evidence source. It’s certainly true that if my friend, who from past observation has always told the truth, tells me that P, then I seem to have a reason to believe that P. But my reason to believe that P isn’t based solely on their having stated that it is the case, it is heavily dependent upon my friends reliability. Consider a compulsive liar who tells you that the sky is falling. It looks like, if you know he is a compulsive liar, you don’t have a reason to believe that the sky is falling just because he says it is. It won’t help our liar in that case to say ‘but I’m telling the truth!’ because we know that he is a compulsive liar and so is an untrustworthy source of evidence.

    Now consider a final case: someone who we have never met makes an outrageous claim, say that the God of thunder Thor appeared to them last night. Further they say that they are telling the truth, and that they always tell the truth. Do we thereby have a reason to believe them. I think no: we need to establish whether or not they are a reliable source of evidence first, and their assertion that they are cannot serve as justification for this belief because we are not yet sure whether they are a reliable source of evidence! Something similar is wrong with saying that we have a reason to believe the Bible because it says it is all true: In a way, what is at question is whether the Bible is a reliable source of evidence, and so any claims within it that it is cannot be justified non-circularly.

    Again, I’d ask you to explain what the difference would be between the Bible and, say, Lord of the Rings if Tolkein had written into the preface that it was all a true account of prehistoric Earth.

    Your point about the believing historical accounts unless we have a reason not to is an interesting one: First, there might just be a methodological problem with operating in that manner. You might well get more beliefs about what happened in the past, but if you want to only form true beliefs it might turn out that operating in that manner isn’t justified. Second, if world-wide floods (when there is no archaeological evidence), pillars of fire coming from the sky, seas parting, people living inside great fish, city walls crumbling to the playing of trumpets, people walking on water, feeding thousands from just two loaves of bread and a few fish, turning water into wine, bringing people back to life and coming back to life themselves don’t count as reasons to disbelieve a historical account, then I don’t know what would qualify as such a reason! The point is: the Bible makes some incredible claims, claims that would cause you to question the truth of any other purportedly accurate historical document, so I think this point fails.

    Foundations

    I think there’s two things to address here: First, whether we can approach the Bible without a belief that it is true and still legitimately investigate its truth, and second; I think you make a point about all argument chains needing to start somewhere.

    With the first point, I have to just flatly disagree with you: There is a middle ground of agnosticism, it’s the same ground we take to any claim we are investigating. The Bible says a lot of things that seem fantastical, obviously we shouldn’t assume that these are false at the outset if we want to be fair, but assuming that they are true from the outset is question begging and won’t really get us anywhere. If it turns out that our other justified beliefs entail that the Bible is false, then that’s not assuming the falsity of the Bible. Also, it looks like the way you approach it does make it unfalsifyable: You say, you assume its truth and then if it were inconsistent or contradictory, you would reject it; but in the same breath you say that mysteries are to be expected because we cannot truly understand God. So any contradiction is going to be explained away: you aren’t really assessing the truth of the Bible, just assuming it.

    With the idea that all argument chains have to start somewhere: First, some people deny this and claim that argument chains go on indefinitely, with each belief needing some sort of justification. Whether or not you think that’s satisfactory it at least shows that it’s not clear that we have to take a starting point like ‘the Bible is true.’ Second, the view you seem to be putting forward is that all argument chains start with just one belief. This just doesn’t seem to be the case. Modern epistemologists tend to be Foundationalists or Coherentists about justification. A foundationalist is going to say that we have a number of foundational beliefs that are themselves not justified in the same was as the beliefs that they then justify themselves, whilst a coherentist is going to say that all of our beliefs have to form a coherent network and that they all justify one another.

    Looking at these in turn: foundationalists aren’t just going to accept any belief as foundational, again there are some norms governing this: It looks like we are going to want some modest beliefs that are non-complex (which more complex beliefs can be built upon). The basic axioms of mathematics look like plausible foundational beliefs, as well as that the law of excluded middle is true and that effects have causes etc. These foundations are not theories in themselves, they are the building blocks of theories. Contrast that with the belief that ‘a 2000 year old bronze age book passed down by word of mouth for two to three generations and then translated through Greek, Latin and several forms of English is a true account of the Universe’s beginnings and events thereafter.’ That is not a modest simple belief, its surprisingly complex and it looks like it is a belief that ought to be supported by foundations. As a very guide, foundational beliefs could be thought of as those that that it makes no sense to question further: ‘why does 1 + 1 = 2?’, ‘why can’t P and its negation both be true?’, ‘why is happiness a good?’. The belief that the Bible is the irrefutable word of God doesn’t look like it will fall into this category, so it’s a poor candidate for a foundational belief.

    On a coherentist picture, we don’t even need foundational beliefs: we just need to make sure that all of our beliefs cohere (coherence = justification). So it’s not clear that argument chains do need to ‘start somewhere.’

    Now, you say that I start by assuming naturalism by which I take you to mean that the world is governed by natural laws of some kind. I don’t see that this means that I am assuming the falsity of what the Bible says at the outset, I’d just need some convincing that what it purports is true. That is, I think it’s possible for a being to apparently break laws of nature: defy gravity, heal the sick etc. But I think these would themselves turn out to be governed by laws and have explanations. It would still make sense to ask, ‘How did Jesus heal Lazarus?’ and there ought to be an answer more informative than ‘he just did’ or ‘he’s God.’

    Supposing you don’t want to rule out the possibility that God safeguarded the truth of the Bible through supernatural intervention, I think we are back to our original problem. You surely need some reason to believe that he did so. After all, why believe that God safeguarded it and not a malignant demon, or just some supernatural entity playing with humanity? The fact that the Bible says it is true won’t help, again, because that’s exactly the sort of statement an entity trying to trick us would put in: it doesn’t provide any reliability. I still think you’d need a reason to say that it was God that safeguarded the Bible’s truth, otherwise the belief is just gratuitous.

    You ask what amount of better historical evidence would I require to believe that the Bible was true. That’s a difficult question. In terms of historical evidence I’m not sure what would outright convince me, it could certainly be made more plausible if other historians (and there are many) mentioned the son of God healing the sick and walking on water. Also, in terms of the old Testament, the Egyptians, who kept extensive historical records (including their defeats and misfortunes) don’t seem to say anything at all that coheres with Exodus.

    Contradictions and Morality

    Ok, some things that look contradictory and inconsistent. First a few things that look inconsistent:

    1. God is all loving (loves all of his creation more dearly than any human possible could) – murders every living thing bar one family and a collection of animals in a worldwide flood. Also on this point, the thought that two of every animal fit onto an arc: there are literally millions of species in existence.
    2. God is all knowing, knows man will sin, knows he will have to murder every living thing on the planet, knows he will have to start over in a new version, presumably has the power to start creation off at that second version (being all powerful) – creates everything just to destroy it.

    Now some things that look contradictory:

    1. Genesis gives two different accounts of how God created the world, both of those accounts cannot be true: he either made man first or he made the heavens and the Earth first.
    2. After the Birth of Christ Jesus, Mary and Joseph went to: Egypt (Matthew); Nazareth (Luke). They couldn’t do both.

    Now I’m sure you’re going to give some explanation for this, about how we could interpret these to not be contradictions: Genesis 2 is not a retelling of Genesis 1, Jesus, Mary and Joseph went to both places, one has a longer time frame than the other. But the problem is, we are supposed to be talking about the irrefutable word of God here; on face value it’s false, and A LOT is down to interpretation, and that interpretation seems gratuitous and without a great deal of justification (why think not just think its false other than the assumption that its all true?). Besides which, if God was supposed to have safeguarded this supernaturally, don’t you think he could have made it clearer and less convoluted?

    Finally, the point about morality was this: people tend to say ‘the Bible is a great source for morality.’ Now if we’re talking about the ten commandments, most of those are just about not taking any other Gods. You’ve got don’t murder, steal or commit adultery; but where is ‘don’t rape’? where is ‘don’t keep slaves’? where is ‘equality for women and races’? Slavery seems to be endorsed by the Bible at several points, women are subjugated and genocide is committed on the orders of God (Deuteronomy). Now you might say, ah it was a different time and place. But isn’t this supposed to be the absolute morality of a perfect being? Shouldn’t a perfect God have demanded the same standards of morality for people then as now?

    There is something more fundamentally wrong with the morality preached by the Bible though, I think, and that is that it promotes not thinking about right and wrong for yourself. It’s supposed to be infallible and a perfect statement of God’s word, so why think about what you ought to believe is right and wrong yourself, just do what the Bible, or your priest, says. I think that’s a dangerous way to get people to behave morally, its the same sort of way that a minority of radical Islamist groups get their zealous followers to blow themselves and others up.

    My own moral beliefs are far from clear; I tend not to want to jump headlong into belief systems. First though, I think that morality is something that is independently accessible to individuals and, if there are properties such as right and wrong that attach to actions, I think they are accessible to individuals and simply through God or the Bible. I think, that is, that people don’t need to be told that murder and rape is wrong by God, that is independently discoverable.

    Second, I don’t think we need God for there to be morality. Some people say ‘if there’s no God then there’s no one to make things right or wrong.’ It’s not clear to me that we need anyone to determine right or wrong for us. If there are moral facts (murder is wrong, rape is wrong, etc.) then they might just be non-contingent facts like mathematical facts. The Bible doesn’t say anything about 1+1=2 being true, nor do we tend to think that anyone needs to make that true. I don’t see any reason why moral facts couldn’t be like this also. Further, if God did determine what actions were right and wrong, I think that pushed us into accepting that actions such as murder or rape are not inherently morally wrong, God could have made them morally good. (rather they get this moral stance from God’s judgement). I find that rather abhorrent, and completely incoherent: rape is fundamentally wrong. If God couldn’t have made these things wrong, then he too is subject to moral facts, in which case we don’t get an explanation for morality via the Bible or God.

    Again I’m not sure what you mean by ‘presupposing [the Bible’s] truthfulness is required for a logically robust view of the world that can best explain and answer (without serious logical problems) the world as we know it.’ The fact that you have to assume such a complex belief makes that world view look non-robust (it’s not resting on several simple axioms, but one very complex one that does not cohere with the other axioms you DO accept  presumably you too accept the axioms of basic logic etc.). Could you explain in what way a world view that did not include the assumption that the Bible is true would be non-robust or incoherent.
    Finally the responses to some of the comments:

    RK: Yes I was referring to the canonization process: What was and was not taken into the early Christian doctrine was decided by men, not God, or so it seems to me. For the point about God guiding the canonization, see my above point to Paul. Why should we think it was God and not a malignant demon, or pixies, guiding the canonization?

    Second, my point about the irrefutability of the new testament having come from a committee: It certainly could be true, I don’t want to deny that. What I meant was that we can in no way exclude the possibility of its being false (it seems possible for it to be refuted). My statement was admittedly poorly constructed for conveying that, sorry.

    Emmanuel: I am presupposing logic, yes, but see my above points in response to Paul about norms for adopting foundational beliefs. That ‘not-(P and not-P)’ is true seems a relatively elegant and modest foundational belief, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to question why P and its negation can’t both be true. Assuming the truth of the Bible looks to be rather different.

    On the canonization: again, the point is that several different books were consolidated into just one. Canonization occurred, a single story was adopted. Why believe it was the right one other than that it says it is?

    Thanks again for all your responses. Sorry if I missed anything out, I re-wrote this rather quickly after losing my first response. Sorry for all the no doubt pervasive typos too!

    All the best,

    P

  6. “http://www.esvbible.org/Romans+1:18-23/”

    The atheist/agnostic claim to believe things based only on evidence. However when pressed to account for how they can justify conclusions based on evidence which is gathered/processed through the senses, they have another question they must answer or the foundation for their worldview crumbles.

    The question is, how do you know that your senses and reasoning are valid to process the evidence?

    The usual response is either:

    “I employ my reasoning to determine that my reasoning is valid.” (Viciously circular)

    Or

    “We must assume our senses are valid” (Not based on evidence – blind faith)

    This response shows that their worldview is based purely on circularity and/or assumption. Assumption is defined as something accepted as true without a shred of evidence.

    The Christian has a foundation for knowledge that is not based on assumption, which is that God has revealed Himself to all mankind such that they can know He exists for certain (this is explained in Romans 1:18-23 and many other places in the Bible where it describes how God has revealed himself innately, through his word, and through creation.)

    So before you listen to an atheist tell you how backward your worldview is, challenge him to provide a non-circular answer not based based on assumption.

  7. No problem, and love this blog, I’m very blessed by it.

    http://www.proofthatgodexists.org for more.

  8. Just came back to this page after a long time, didn’t realise there were a few more responses. Just thought I’d offer some brief ruminations on J’s point above.

    What you seem to be alluding to is a well known problem in epistemology: we get all of our information through our senses, but how do we know our senses are right? and the simple answer seems to be, we can’t possibly know that they are.

    We can generate all kinds of radical sceptical hypotheses to demonstrate this, most famous being Descartes in the meditations: Suppose that an evil demon is fooling you, presenting you with false sensations to make you think you are living in this world when in fact all that you see feel hear and touch is conjured up by the demon.

    More recently there have been brains in vats or computer simulation hypotheses (think ‘the matrix’) that do much the same job.

    Now its true that there is apparently no easy answer to this. We simply cannot know whether we are a brain in a vat or not because any information to the contrary could just be information being fed to us whilst we are brains in vats.

    It’s also true that invariably everyone assumes we aren’t in sceptical hypotheses and that we can trust our senses and reason about the world. There might be some reasoning behind this: its a more coherent world view, perhaps, or ‘it would be too hard to fake all of this’. but in the end it is an assumption that we might consider unjustified.

    However, I don’t think this puts it on a par with assuming that the bible is true: first, consider that you too assume this. You get your information about the bible through your senses, so to even consider whether the bible is true you have to have also assumed that your senses are a correct representation of the world.

    Once you assume this though, its an extra assumption that is needed to establish the bible’s infallibility, which flies in the face of your first assumption (in that it is unjustified by reasoning on the senses alone).

    Basically, your naturalist will have one or two assumptions: i) we can trust our senses and i) there are laws of nature that govern the universe.

    A fundamentalist Christian will have (at least) three: i) we can trust our senses (else how could you know that the word of god which you have received through your senses was presented correctly), ii) there are laws of nature that govern the universe (else why do you drive your car to work rather than, say, trying to fly, or simply teleport there by an act of will?), and iii) The bible is true.

    Given that the third assumption is not supported by and often does not cohere with the first two, I think that is why non-believers are going to think that they are on firmer epistemological ground than believers: we all make the first two assumptions, we sort of have to operate in society at all; believers then make a third which seems unjustified by the prior two (the first being absolutely fundamental for any other assumptions).

    cheers,

    P

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