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Problems with the Christian Worldview
(Text as at 12/08/2007 10:01:55)(For the live version and other versions of this Note, see the tables at the end)
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As always, this note will start off as a brain-dump, which I’ll tidy up and segregate into hyper-linked topics in due course. Note that while this caveat persists, this note (which has been whacked out in a couple of hours, and shows it) is in DRAFT, and cannot to represent my considered views. As it’s hidden down a long chain of hyperlinks, maybe no-one will notice it until I’ve had the opportunity to tweak it a bit.
I’ve admitted that I have “problems” with Christianity. So, what are my “problems”? I need to address this question from at least three angles.
I’ve always maintained that our most fundamental beliefs are held as an interconnecting matrix, though with some form of hierarchy of belief. That’s what I tried to describe in my Christian Tractatus (updated version in progress). So, this statement of issues (and of the alternatives) can’t really be viewed in isolation. However, if I try to expand on all this here, I’ll be repeating what I’ve said elsewhere. This summary will have to remain simplistic.
- Firstly, the issues themselves, focusing on the most critical ones, and
- Secondly, providing some form of alternative explanation of the pro-Christian data.
- Finally, I suppose, I ought to give an account of the alternative life-stance that I do espouse.
A final preliminary point is that not all Christians (the more zealous may accuse these of being Christians “falsely so-called”) will find all of my objections to be real issues1. However, the versions of Christianity I have “problems” with are those that posit an active God and a supernaturalist worldview. Weaker versions, it seems to me, make no practical difference to our lives, and confuse issues by using supernaturalist terminology with a naturalist meaning.
So, what are the issues? I’ll list them with elaborating footnotes to be provided in due course.
It may be that it is possible to make an accommodation for all these objections, as liberal Christianity has done, but in general the supporters of the “strong” versions of Christianity won’t have any of it – probably for good reason: such a version of Christianity is hardly worth believing in, and is nothing but muddle and equivocation.
- Origins: This encompasses the 7-day creation, the creation of Adam, the Fall, and the Flood.
- The Place of Man: there is no saltation between homo sapiens and the great apes; just a difference of degree. Adam was not created from the dust, but evolved from an ape-like ancestor. There was no fall from initial righteousness.
- Life: Christianity appears to be committed to vitalism. Matter (“dust”) has to have the breath of life breathed into it in order to be alive. There is a division amongst Christians who think about the matter at all into tri-partists - who believe in body, soul and spirit - and bi-partists who believe in body and spirit only (the soul being a sort of fusion of the two). I’ve allowed that the bi-partists win the day, and not objected to souls here. Biology seems to view life as nothing more than the right sort of complexity and organization in matter, with no absolute divide between animate and inanimate entities, and the detailed rejection of vitalism by demonstrating how living tissues and organisms work is one of its major triumphs.
- Miracles: the contemporary evidence against them is so strong that I accept Hume’s analysis – we need to be more certain that there has been no dissimulation, distortion, confusion or error in transmission of the ancient testimony than we are of the initial improbability of a miracle occurring. This is a purely empirical matter, but all contemporary evidence suggests that miracles are very unlikely.
- Cosmology: Just where did Jesus ascend to, and where did Elijah’s chariot of fire go? Just what sort of place, if it is one, is heaven? What are the “new heavens and the new earth”, wherein righteousness will dwell? What is their relation to the old heaven and old earth?
- Spiritual Beings: There is no good evidence for the existence of angels, demons, and so on.
It is worth pointing out that there are some aspects of Christianity that often feature in popular objections that I don’t take issue with, either because I reject the objections, or because the tenets objected to are not properly part of Christianity. A brief summary:
Firstly, those popular objections I don’t think cogent:
Secondly, those items that are part of orthodox Christianity, but which may not me properly Bible-based, and so their rejection isn’t relevant to the rejection of Biblical Christianity:
- The Universal Sinfulness of Mankind. This is an obvious empirical fact, but has other explanations than the fall of Adam.
- Theodicy: I expect a good account of the consistency of the evil we find in the world with the goodness of God can be made out, by appeal to sin, free will and Satan, if we had reason to accept the existence of all of these.
- Biblical Scepticism: I reject over-zealous skepticism about the general reliability of the Bible, and doubts about the existence and general character of Jesus as described therein. However, I don’t think the New Testament always uses the Old in the manner of a good Bible student, but ignores the context in the manner of the expository approach of the time.
- Horrid Things Done by Christians: Sadly, these are just what would be expected given the universal sinfulness of mankind.
- Souls: Popular Christianity has it that the Christian is committed to mind/body dualism. However, there is a growing band of Christian materialists, who stress bodily resurrection and deny the possibility (or at least the fact / desirability) of disembodied existence for human beings, and maybe a case for this view can be made out from the Bible. I think the empirical evidence for the correlation of brain activity to psychological experience is so strong, that no-one these days would introduce a dualist account without their religion obliging them to do so. That isn’t to deny that the possibility of sentient matter isn’t a great mystery that is currently unexplained, despite a great industry directed at it. But some problems are hard to solve, or even conceptualise. Maybe I should promote this to a real objection, because I’m not convinced that resurrection of the very same individual makes sense in the absence of a continuing immaterial substance (given, ex hypothesi, that there is no continuing material substance). However, I’m not yet sufficiently confident of this for it to bear the necessary weight.
- Eternal Torment for the Wicked: this would be a damnable doctrine, but it is not clear that the Bible teaches it.
And what alternative explanation can be given? This is highly complex, as there are so many plots and sub-plots. Also, it cannot be incumbent on the unbeliever to give a precise alternative account of the origin of what he sees as myth. Who knows precisely how the Greek myths arose, but does this ignorance mean that it’s incumbent on us to believe in them. The reason I may have for feeling an obligation to provide an alternative account of Christianity is that it is (even to the contemporary western mind) not quite so ridiculous as the Greek myths. Also, it is a worldview I myself have espoused and a good many intelligent contemporaries also espouse. I excuse myself from having to give an alternative account of the other religions that satisfy the second point on account of the failure of the first: I am profoundly ignorant of them, and even if I wasn’t, think that experience “from the inside” is necessary before pouring on the scorn.
I suppose my alternative account would be along the lines of “religious progress”. An initial propitiatory, tribal account of the relation of the individual / society to God was improved upon, firstly within the propitiatory framework of animal sacrifice, ultimately seeing that such actions can’t work, and by refining the concept of God. I think it’s a suggestion of genius to see these sacrifices as “types and shadows”, leading up to the one true sacrifice of Jesus. But this doesn’t make this suggestion correct. Just why does God need propitiation in the first place? As for Jesus’ own views, I don’t subscribe to the “mad, bad or God” trichotomy that C.S. Lewis proposes. It’s not likely that Jesus directly claimed to be God (despite the suggestions in John), but it is likely that he acted out the role of Isaiah’s suffering servant. I would have to say that in this he was mistaken, but this doesn’t make him mad or bad.
I need to add a footnote on probabilities, maybe using the game of Cluedo (Wikipedia: Cluedo) as a springboard. The basic idea is that if we deny that Colonel Mustard did it, we don’t have to believe that Professor Plumb did it. There are many alternatives. The most likely suspect isn’t thereby guilty. We can be assured that p(it is not the case that Colonel Mustard did it) = 1 – p(Colonel Mustard did it). If Colonel Mustard didn’t do it, then even though each of the alternatives has low initial probability, yet one of them must be true. Say I bought 1,000,000 tickets for yesterday’s lottery. Then, presumably, the odds on my winning the lottery were greater than the odds on any other entrant. Yet I still didn’t win it, and was unlikely to have done so. I mention this because I’ve recently read a somewhat silly paper asking whether it’s rational for Christians to believe in the Resurrection (of Jesus). The “pro” author thinks there are fours sensible alternatives, and picks them off one by one. So Jesus must have risen from the dead. This reasoning is fallacious.
My personal worldview
… to be supplied: not because I’ve not got one … it can probably be deduced from my Christian Tractatus … but because I haven’t got round to writing up a quick summary yet. We don’t live in a vacuum, and it’s all very well being negative. However, ab initio, this is a very complex and creative task, which is why the alternative “package deal” approach is so much more popular (though maybe the “don’t know, care less” approach wins the day in the popularity stakes).
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