Monday, August 21, 2017

What would it take to abandon your faith?

Recently I watched a video clip by Andy Bannister:

Before I comment on the specifics, I don't wish to be too critical. I'm sure he's doing far more good than I ever will. And I think the situation for Christians in England is tougher than the situation for Christians in the USA. Finally, this is an intentionally a brief reply, pitched at a popular level. That said, I wouldn't answer the question the way he does, and I think there's a serious problem with the tack he takes. 

i) Suppose a Christian were to answer the question by saying that nothing could make him abandon his faith? Atheists would exclaim how his admission goes to show that Christians are fideists. Their faith isn't factually motivated or grounded.

I think Christians like Lennox and Bannister are defensive about that stereotypy, which is why they counter by stressing the factual basis of Christian faith. They have evidence for what they believe. 

And that's an important corrective to the atheist stereotype. Many atheists are completely ignorant regarding the arguments for Christianity. They reside in a secular echo chamber where all their friends and acquaintances agree with each other than there couldn't possible be any good reasons to believe in Christianity. 

There is, though, the danger of overreacting to the stereotype. In particular, there's the danger of intellectual elitism. As Leibniz noted:

If you [John Locke] take faith to be only what rests on rational grounds for belief, and separate it from the inward grace which immediately endows the mind with faith, everything you say, sir, is beyond dispute. For it must be acknowledge that many judgments are more evident than the ones which depend on these rational grounds. Some people have advanced further towards the latter than others have; and indeed, plenty of people, far from having weighed up such reasons, have never known them and consequently do not even have what could count as grounds for probability. But the inward grace of the Holy Spirit makes up for this immediately and supernaturally, and it is this that creates what theologians strictly call "divine faith". God, it is true, never bestows this faith unless what he is making one believe in grounded in reason–otherwise he would subvert our capacity to recognize truth, and open the door to enthusiasm–but it is not necessary that all who possess this divine faith should know those reasons, and still less that they should have them perpetually before their eyes. Otherwise none of the unsophisticated or of the feeble-minded–now at least–would have the true faith, and the most enlightened people might not have it when they most needed it, since no one can always remember his reasons for believing. G. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding(Cambridge, 2nd ed., 1996), 498.

Most Christians lack the aptitude to make a philosophically sophisticated case for their faith. And that limitations is not confined to Christians. Most atheists are not intellectuals.

And just in general, most of us, including most philosophers, have fundamental beliefs which are very hard to defend in a philosophically rigorous fashion, yet we are right to believe them. 

ii) There is a sense in which we need to say that there are things which would make us abandon our Christian faith. The classic example is Paul's statement that if the Resurrection never happened, that falsifies the Christian faith (1 Cor 15:14,17).

The basic principle is that for Christianity to be true, some other things must be false. Christian propositions as well as propositions that contradict Christianity can't both be true. 

To deny this renders the Christian faith vacuous. Christian theology can't affirm anything to be the case unless it implicitly disaffirms the contradictories of whatever it affirms. Falsifiability, in this hypothetical sense, is necessary to preserve the intellectual integrity of the Christian faith, in contrast to theological noncognitivism.

iii) However, it's misleading to leave it at that with no further qualifications. For one thing, Paul's statement is a counterfactual claim. He doesn't offer that as a live possibility. To the contrary, Paul is using the Resurrection as a wedge issue. He regards the Resurrection as an unquestionable benchmark. If the beliefs or behavior of the Corinthians is at odds with the Resurrection, then they need to bring their beliefs or behavior in line with the Resurrection. 

iv) In addition, the status of counterfactuals is metaphysically demanding. What makes counterfactual statements true? They can't be true in or about the actual world, because counterfactuals statements are claims about what might have been. What didn't happen. 

Typically, counterfactual statements are grounded in possible worlds. But what are possible worlds? What must reality be like to accommodate possible worlds? 

A Christian might say a possible world is a world plot in God's mind. God imagines alternate histories, and God is able to instantiate these scenarios in real space and real time. On that view, possible worlds are divine ideas. They inhere in God's omniscience and omnipotence.

But if physicalism is true, and if the universe is all there is, then there's no room for possible worlds. Not at least if we define possible worlds as abstract objects. 

Paradoxically, Paul's counterfactual only makes sense given a theistic worldview. It's an argument per impossibile. If (per impossibile) Christ didn't rise from the dead, then our faith is in vain. 

v) And that line of reasoning can be extended much farther. In asking what it would take to make you abandon your faith, you should also ask what other beliefs you'd need to abandon to abandon your faith. What does it take to be a consistent atheist? Loss of faith isn't the only intellectual casualty. Carried to a logical extreme, what other beliefs are swept away by apostasy? 

It might be wholly irrational to abandon your faith. In that event, to say nothing would make you abandon your faith is not a fideistic admission, but just the opposite. To abandon your faith you'd have to abandon basic epistemic norms. 

vi) It might be objected that I've oversimplified the alternatives. It's not a stark choice between atheism and Christian theism, but a continuum. And in theory that's true. It's important to eliminate other candidates, like Platonic realism and rival religions. And the analysis could take it to the next step. 


  1. It's like asking what it would take to deny the obvious. It's worth discussing what makes something obvious. However, given the obvious, the intellectual exercise of falsifiability is merely academic.

    Now, as for answering an atheist, I might say that there must be physical proof that physical reality is self-existent. That is logically not provable because it is a metaphysical question. It requires the atheist to prove a presupposition that is unprovable by that same presupposition. Additionally, it points out the primary positive belief of most atheists, something they typically deny exists.

  2. I realize this is a bit a tangent, but any chance you would interact with Jay Wile's latest post about the moral argument?

    1. "I think that this book, more than any other book I have read, shows that the Argument from Morality is simply a silly argument for God’s existence. I have never been persuaded by the Argument from Morality, mostly because of pragmatic reasons: while some of the most moral people I know are Christians, some of the most immoral people I know are also Christians. If morality is to be used as evidence for the existence of God, you would think that, on average, those who believe in God would be slightly more moral than those who do not believe in God. I just don’t see that."

      He doesn't seem to grasp what the argument from morality is. It doesn't mean unbelievers can't be moral. Rather, it means unbelievers have no objective basis to be moral. In a godless universe, there's no reason they *ought* to do one thing rather than another.

  3. Atheists would exclaim how his admission goes to show that Christians are fideists. Their faith isn't factually motivated or grounded.

    I think Clarkian apologetics does well in demonstrating that no empirical evidence could ever disprove Christianity, since empirical evidence cannot provide/produce indubitable truths or facts. As a Van Tillian, I'd say that's especially true outside of the Christian worldview. Though, Clarkian apologetics does open the possibility of (apparently) disproving Christianity internally. Since Clarkian presuppositionalism has too high and strict a view and use of the laws of logic. It can't allow for paradoxes or apparent contradictions in Christianity or the Bible.

    In asking what it would take to make you abandon your faith, you should also ask what other beliefs you'd need to abandon to abandon your faith. What does it take to be a consistent atheist? Loss of faith isn't the only intellectual casualty. Carried to a logical extreme, what other beliefs are swept away by apostasy?

    I think combining Clarkian and Van Tillian presuppositionalism does well in arguing that consistent atheism leads to the inability to predicate whatsoever. It destroys all possible basis for rationality, knowledge, values, objectivity, standards, science (and laws of), laws of logic, morality (and laws of), induction, physics, metaphysics, evidence, personality, consciousness, intentionality, thoughts, beliefs, desires, acts of the will, ratiocination, generally reliable memories etc.

    1. William Lane Craig also makes a good point about in distinguishing between what 1. "could/would" cause someone to lose their faith and what 2. "should" lead people to abandon their faith. The former is a psychological issue. For example, it may not be any evidence against Christianity but a bad experience (say the death of loved one) or disappointment with God. The latter question of "should" is a rational question and issue.