Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Unhappy Arguments

I've often heard used, and I'm afraid to say have sometimes used myself, arguments for Christianity which I now tend to regard as weak. Actually, weak is perhaps not the right word. They are strong arguments, but they are not fit for the purpose to which they are generally put. I have in mind arguments of this sort:

"Without Christianity, there is no purpose to anything"
"Unless there is a God, there can be no real ethics"
"All people need hope, and the only real hope comes through Jesus"

All three statements, and many others that could be made like them are, I think, true. I would still be happy to make them and to stand by them. The problem is where they fit into our argument. Let's take the statement about ethics. It is often used as if it could be formulated thus:

Major premise: only the existence of God could create objective ethics.
Minor premise: there is such a thing as objective ethics.
Conclusion: therefore, God exists.

Well, that won't do. Anyone can happily deny the minor premise. And they regularly do. Sure, you can push people into admitting that they do think that one thing or another is 'just wrong', but that is just their feeling or preference as far as they are concerned.

What about hope? I've often heard something a bit like:

Major premise: only Christianity offers ultimate hope for individuals and the cosmos.
Minor premise: we all need hope.
Conclusion: therefore, Christianity is true.

But that is not even a valid syllogism! It is a valid question whether our need for hope, especially in the face of death, is not in fact a product of our Christian heritage. Even if hope is a universal human desire - and I don't see how you could prove it - that doesn't show that it is a valid desire. I hope for many things that don't come to pass.

Arguments like these have their place. What they demonstrate, if presented properly, is that 'it would be nice if Christianity were true'. That sounds like a pretty weak conclusion, but actually I think it is one of the things that my contemporaries need to hear. Christianity is attractive; faith in Jesus makes sense of the world. These arguments are important because many people have already decided that Christianity is intellectually, ethically and aesthetically barren. We need to show them that it is not so. We also need to point out, by use of these sorts of arguments, that they ought not to be content to swallow the nonChristian worldview without careful thought - after all, it deprives you of hope, ethics etc. Maybe those things are illusory, in which case we'll have to do without, but you ought to at least check. In this way, positively and negatively,we win a hearing for the gospel.

That would be the first step. But that is as far as any of these arguments can take you. Even here, your argument needs to be qualified: if Christianity is true, there is also the reckoning with the wrath of God against sin, which is frankly unattractive. That tells me that even here these arguments cannot be allowed to control.

Everything hinges on this: is it true? By which we mean: did the man Jesus die and rise?


  1. This post is really quite disturbing. Until the last 3 paragraphs you (rightly) highlight the weaknesses of 3 particular common arguments in Christian talks (including your classic "If I were an atheist, I would just commit suicide, there'd be no point of living"). While I could discuss these particular issues for hours, the issues themselves are not what your post is predominantly about.
    You then launch into what I believe to be a highly exploitative approach: despite admitting the weaknesses of these arguments, you opt for a strategy of (as a 'first step') appealing to people based on their hopes and desires, implcitly where reasoning fails. Would you not usually consider this to be the working of a cult?
    The 'niceness' of some premise being true is completely independent of its truthfulness, and it seems odd that you back to value of such an argument given your musings on limitations on some absolute notion of 'hope'.

    You further develop this strategy by talking about the place of these arguments; if one has already made conclusions on the intellectual integrity (or lack of) of Christianity, to try and instil a sense of hopelessness, not at an intellectual level (given your previous dismissal of your own arguments) but at an emotional level. To me this seems like emotional blackmail.

    This may all sound like I'm being a tad melodramatic, but my concerns are certainly not unfounded. From experience (and even daresay your previous talks) I've found such tactics rampant in literature, talks and sermons. I've seen people converted to Christianity not because it answers any questions, but because Christians (myself included in my former religious incarnation) often exploit a sense of insecurity, or using some kind of 'aesthetic appeal' as you put it (although I should add that our definitions of 'attractive' are vastly different).

    By all means, aim to convince people of the 'truths' of Christianity. But make it about arguments, not about poignant rhetoric, emotional manipulation, smooth diplomacy or crowd-pleasing Kant bashing. And none of this 'Christianity makes sense of the world' nonsense - it's the second most cyclically redundant argument just behind 'The Bible is true because it fundamentally is true.'

  2. Hi Jamie,

    With respect, you've completely misunderstood the point I was seeking to make (and also perhaps the points I've been trying to make in the talks you've heard me give). I think it is entirely valid to point out to people that their worldview provides no hope, no meaning etc. After all, it is true. It is not exploitative to point out that there is no meaning in an atheistic universe - even R. Dawkins would admit to the truth of it! And I don't see how it is exploitative for me to provide the (true) autobiographical information that I do not see how people can live in such a universe. This is not at all the point where 'reasoning fails'. We are very much within the realm of truth. After all, what you call 'trying to instil a sense of hopelessness' seems to me to be simply stating the acknowledged facts about an atheistic worldview - surely all admit that there is no ultimate hope here!

    The point I am making in this post is just this: these arguments ought not to persuade anyone to become a Christian. It is quite possible that the world simply is hopeless. But if someone comes along claiming that in fact there is hope, and they have found it, we ought at least to give their claims a good look over - our current hopelessness would be a motive to do so. That's all. It's not a big thing, it's just saying 'since we have to acknowledge that your worldview does not offer any comfort in the face of death, and this worldview claims to be able to offer such comfort, let's take a good look at it to see whether it might be true'.

    (This is possibly the first time I have heard Kant bashing described as crowd pleasing - only in Oxford!)

  3. Given what you've said in response, I'm not sure I have misinterpreted it. You say "since we have to acknowledge that your worldview does not offer any comfort in the face of death..."; this is the kind of exploitation I'm talking about - it plays on people's fear of death and the unknown rather than any kind of factual consideration.
    Where I think you go wrong generally in your argument on 'meaning' is that you assume a lack of 'absolution' in such a concept (and perhaps with morality too) totally devalues any kind of subjective construction that we make. Regardless of whether you claim this is 'in the realm of truth', you still seem to confusingly claim that "it would be nice if it were true".
    Some people though do struggle to find some sense of meaning in their lives, but this does not elucidate at all on the existence or non-existence of a god. You claim this is not exploitation, but then why say "It would be nice if it were true"?.

    And I still think you kid yourself on the level of factualness in your talks, unless as you say 'I'm missing the point'. Your talk on 'Are we predestined for hell?' for example never even seemed to attempt to answer the question. Your answer merely boiled down to "The Bible states both free will and predestination are true; although they seem to contradict other, it's sinful and arrogant to assume we know better than god. (And somehow Jesus has something to do with the issue)".
    But the thing is, you get away with it. Your charm, usual eloquence, self-confidence, along with your confident assertions that you are a philosopher and "think more than is healthy", means you can 'intelligently talk round the issue', but leave people unsatisfied that any kind of substantial answer has been given. This is not so much a personal attack, but more a general criticism of apologetics speakers.
    For the record, I like you as a person, but I was upmost frustrated with the Big Issues speakers last term. Like the first guy, who has a science degree from Cambridge, yet made assertions like "We can judge the truthfulness of a faith by how much fruit it produces" and the usual Christian soundbite "We can judge the truthfulness of a faith by whether it makes 'sense of the world'". Or other speakers who continually hammer out Jesus when it is irrelevant to the topic (something I was taught in evangelism training). Or others who seem to be more about style than substance. Given I am a scientist, I find the continual onslaught of fuzzy reasoning and emotional prodding rather unbearable; the only reason I went was to ensure seekers who came along would be making an informed decision rather than being seduced with bad logic, or in the case of this post, by pointing at the 'appealing' nature of 'hope' and 'meaning' in their lives.

  4. For the record, I find you generally agreeable also. Now, on to more substantive matters...

    "it plays on people's fear of death and the unknown rather than any kind of factual consideration."

    But fear of death and the unknown *is* a fact, and therefore comes in for factual consideration. The alternative seems to be to try to have a discussion about ultimate realities which ignores what is arguably *the* ultimate reality of which we have knowledge - death.

    On meaning: I do not assume that a lack of absolute meaning makes subjective meaning impossible. On the contrary, I am very prepared to argue for that fact. And I think it is a simple con to argue that we can 'create meaning' or 'assign meaning' to anything in an ultimately meaning universe.

    A fundamental difference here is that whilst I am seeking to prioritise truth I feel that you are seeking to prioritise reason - and I don't think we mean the same thing by those two words. I am happy to appeal to a person's hopes, dreams, emotions and the like so long as these do not override truth - because I see them as being just as integral to a person as reason is. You want to shut all these things out, because you are an empiricist - the appeal must be to reason and evidence alone. Fair enough. I have elsewhere explained why I think empiricism is a worldview which already rules out Christianity, and so within that worldview of course you cannot find sufficient empirical evidence for Christianity. I confess, I decline to play the empiricist game. I think there are good reasons to reject it as a worldview. I suspect much of your complain about emotional prodding and fuzzy logic springs from this worldview.

    I do want to draw your attention to one thing. You mentioned "speakers who continually hammer out Jesus when it is irrelevant to the topic". This leads me to make a monumentally arrogant claim, given your own autobiography: I do not think you have understood Christianity. The BI speakers are speaking from an unapologetically Christian worldview, and it is clear to them that Jesus has everything to do with everything. To me, also. That perhaps is the most fundamental difference.

  5. Now we're getting somewhere!

    This time, I agree with pretty much everything you say with regards to my position, so it might be the point at which we have to 'agree to disagree' as it were.
    I am an empiricist because I am a scientist (and this perhaps explains why the overwhelming majority of influential scientists are either atheist, or at best agnostic). For me, emotions and the general 'breadth of human experience' can be appreciated holistically because we assign them holistic value or embodiment, even if in physical terms they can be reduced to their components. As a musician I can enjoy a symphony for example, even though I know it is composed of a number of notes; to assign any kind of notion of 'absolute meaning' is for me unnecessary and vague, firstly because it is difficult to quantity what 'meaning' actually is (that's the empiricist in me talking again!), and secondly because it seems to neglect the field of cognition (which I won't get into detail on).
    But in some respects I don't think our position on such issues differs as much as you might think. You claim that all life is depressing and meaningless without a God. So I would ask, why do you read books or have hobbies for example? In an eternal perspective, the acquisition of worldly knowledge or our physical activities passes away when we die. You may go for the Biblical approach and say that worldly things are gifts from God for us to enjoy. But as a non-believer, one can still enjoy the things of the world, and more generally, concepts of love, laughter, etc; a mere reflection of the fact we are in the world to experience them. The only difference is one belief has a God-origination of meaning, the other doesn't. This is why I find ploys to try and find some emotional-bankruptness with a lack of 'absolute' meaning rather silly.

    I think it goes without saying what I think about 'the fear of death' being some objective fact. Perhaps this is a reflection of me not seeing any distinction between 'truth' and 'reasoning', as a consequence of my lack of appreciation for the non-empiricist position.

    As for your last point, this is the one time I'll have to disagree with your assessment. I understand Christianity to be the message that humanity is sinful, deserving of eternal punishment because of God's perfect standards, and that Jesus was sent as an atonement for such sins (or a propiciation if you like) to reconcile us with God (this is what evangelicals call 'Good News').
    This DOES NOT mean however that every single Biblical issue, particularly apologetics, can be explained by the cross, simply because in many cases it doesn't answer the question; it merely provides a central foundation for the basis of the Christian faith. The central plot of the Lord of the Rings books for example is Frodo's journey to cast the Ring into Mount Doom. This doesn't mean that it answers the question of 'Why were Frodo and Sam best buddies?'. It's a fairly stupid example, but my point is this - you don't have to neglect the centre point of the Christian faith when a specific issue doesn't explicitly encapsulate it.

  6. I'm not saying this just to be awkward, but honestly, your understanding of what the gospel is and what Christianity implies really does come across as a caricature of the worst sorts of conservative evangelicalism. I think what you've described falls short of Biblical Christianity on a couple of counts.

    For example: "in an eternal perspective, the acquisition of worldly knowledge or our physical activities passes away when we die" - I absolutely disagree. I think that there is much more continuity between old and new creation than you seem to think in the Biblical view!

    Another example: "This DOES NOT mean however that every single Biblical issue, particularly apologetics, can be explained by the cross". Well, perhaps not. But then, the gospel is very much more than the cross. (Your outline, whilst obviously intended to be brief, seems to fall into the con. evang. error of thinking 'the cross' as some sort of mechanism is the centre of Christian faith. It isn't. The person of Christ is the centre. Moreover, Christianity is not, in the Bible at least, all about personal salvation, but about the redemption of the whole of creation - personal salvation being [an important] part of that). I would want to consider the effect that the incarnation has, if true, on our understanding of epistemology, for example.

    So, I guess if you're saying you're annoyed because instead of answering the question people just deliver a gospel outline like the one you've quoted - yes, that's annoying, and it bugs me too. But if a speaker gives an answer that doesn't revolve around Christ - whom the Bible describes as the very logic of existence personified - then they're not giving a Christian answer.

    I'm honestly a bit gutted if all the time you've spent in church has left you with the sort of thin, boring-sounding Christianity that comes across in these last few comments. I really think it's a lot better than that.

    (Although obviously only if it's true..!)

  7. Fair do-s. I agree there is something almost clinical about the Ebbes-induced presentation of the core Christian message (I blame Matthias Media, perhaps arbiters of the very worst kind of conversative evangelicalism; just read any copy of The Briefing, or their latest pamphlet "Atheism is probably* definitely wrong" - where 'probably' is crossed out). But needless to say my faith had a 'healthy' emphasis on the centrality of Christ rather than just of the cross. As I think I said in my online testimony, when doubts struck I would look at the figure of Christ... until I eventually realised that the preoccupation of a figure of Christ, or indeed any figure, is insufficient justification for a faith. I therefore find the life of Jesus quite irrelevant to Christianity's validity (in the non-empirical sense), since a similar argument could be applied to any other core figure of any other religion. I've said this many times before, but however much the life and death of Jesus convicts us at an emotional level, this does not make it necessarily true.

    I do not think you are just irrelevantly presenting the gospel in your reply, because in this case it is entirely relevant. But ultimately, the correct theological presentation of the Christian message is only really relevant if Christianity is true.

  8. Jamie - I'm not sure what your objection was. Dan was saying precisely that appeals to the (possible) hollowness of materialist thinking are *not* enough. Convincing someone that life without God is meaningless and ethically void may simply mean one has proved that life is meaningless and ethically void, and may as well lead someone to Albert Camus as much as to the Gospel.

    I'm not a Christian myself, and as a university lecturer I would hate nothing more than to see young people emotionally exploited at a vulnerable stage of their lives, but I think the kind of interrogation of materialism practised by Christian apologists is fair enough - as Daniel says, it 'has its place'.

    After all, it's pretty hard to occupy a position of thought without critiquing mutually exclusive positions: Dawkinsesque empiricists themselves dabble in theology and the Bible to argue against religions; Marxists may put across very valid anti-capitalist points without actually proving Marxism itself one jot.

  9. Chris my point is this...
    I recognised that Dan was identifying these arguments were not enough in the sense they were unconvincing to materialists/empiricists, but instead using these arguments in an 'emotional' context, i.e. the arguments being aesthetically attractive because of the promises of hope etc, even if the arguments are intellectually void. Dan claims they are useful in part because 'they are nice/appealing if true'.
    Have I really got this completely wrong?

    I can understand you find such interrogations innocent, indeed they can be. But experience in the Christian world suggests the opposite for me. I remember for example in a youth club when we were told that any human achievements were futile and all that we have done in the world would soon be forgotten once we die, and general scaremongering. I could cite numerous instances of very clear exploitation.
    I *do* think there is a place for these arguments, but only in an intellectual context; but then Dan dismisses their validity in the first half of his post. I find it odd that Dan acknowledges the frailty of these arguments, but then claims they have some usefulness on some secondary emotional level.
    This is shown further in one of Dan's replies; 'fear of death' he claims is a 'fact' worthy of consideration. But this is where I strongly disagree. Fear of death maybe near universal, but it is irrelevant to the truth of Christianity (particularly because it is hardly unique to Christianity), therefore using as some kind of emotional vice is, I think, exploitative.

  10. Well, my reading is that Dan merely wanted to make "intellectually, ethically and aesthetically" appealing in the context of a critique of materialism, which some people - one might argue - have failed to fully think the consequences of through.

    Aesthetically comes third in his list, and whilst I can certainly see the potential for scaremongering, I don't think Dan is saying such arguments as 'atheism cannot fully make sense of death' or 'materialism cannot provide an ethics' are intellectually bankrupt. They they have a certain intellectual validity as part of a critique of the prevailing worldview.

    However, a critique of the logic of 'the world', whilst traditionally part of Christianity right back to the gospel, does clearly not prove Christianity itself.

    Sorry, quite a confused post - done in a rush, have to catch a bus in two mins!

  11. Hi Jamie,

    Just to say, you seem to be making a very similar point to the one I was trying to make in the original post: that none of the arguments about ethics etc. ought to be used as if they were proof of Christianity. I was actually trying to make an appeal to Christians not to rest more weight on these points than they can take. I have heard talks where Christian speakers seem to want people to become Christians just because it would give them hope, fill a void, etc etc. And that isn't good enough. Christian faith should be based on the life, death and resurrection of Christ - if those things didn't happen, then goodbye Christianity.

    As you rightly point out, and as I thought I was pointing out in my initial post, the fear of death etc is not any sort of proof of Christianity. I do think that it provides a (reasonable, sensible) motive to investigate Christianity (and other worldviews which claim to provide hope in the face of death), but nothing more. At this juncture we must also recognise that we can easily be conned into thinking an argument is good just because it has pleasant consequences for us, and so we need to be on our guard as we look at the evidence. (And by 'evidence' I do mean more than you might be willing to admit to the court, but that is by the by at current).

    Hope that puts your mind at rest a little.

  12. This is all well and good if this is the point you are trying to make, but I still think it's far from clear from your original post. You claim:

    "Arguments like these have their place. What they demonstrate, if presented properly, is that 'it would be nice if Christianity were true'. That sounds like a pretty weak conclusion, but actually I think it is one of the things that my contemporaries need to hear. Christianity is attractive; faith in Jesus makes sense of the world."

    As I've said, I know you think these arguments are weak if they are used as some kind of proof. But then why use them on the basis of their 'attractiveness'?

  13. Well, for the reasons I explained above! It is hard to change a whole worldview. People naturally stick with what they know. Also, many people in our culture have (what I view as) a false impression of Christianity and what it would entail. These things prevent people from even looking carefully at the evidence. So I'm happy to prod their worldview a little bit - have you thought about the implications of your worldview? Are you comfortable with that? Have you considered whether that longing for meaning or whatever is significant? Is it even possible for you to live out your current worldview?

    But the end result of all that prodding should only be that it causes someone to carefully consider whether their presuppositions are correct, and to look seriously at other ways of explaining the world. Nothing has been proved. In that context, I would want to present the evidence for Christianity.

    I think we'll never agree on this. That's to be expected. We have fundamentally different views of what people are, how reason works, what is meant by 'true'... And all manner of other things. Chiefly, I suspect, we will differ on the fact that I maintain that an appeal to the 'whole person' (reason, emotions, experience, longings) is legitimate, so long as it is grounded ultimately in an appeal to something objective (truth) and not merely subjective.

    On the other hand, of course, since there is no ultimate meaning in your worldview, why would it matter if we were all wrong? ;o)

  14. Vis-a-vis your last point, Daniel...

    I always think this about determinists who say they have examined determinism and"decided" it is the most convincing philosophical position.