Thursday, May 05, 2005

Is Christianity Falsifiable? Part 1

What would it take to "deconvert" a Christian? By "Christian" I mean somebody who accepts the full deity of Christ, the general trustworthiness of at least the NT canon, and who attempts to live his life according to the scriptures. Now this definition is sort of fuzzy, but it should be specific enough to use as a grounding point for comparison if the need should arise.

The question: what would it take to falsify Christianity? That is, what events or information would cause me to "mail it in" and join my local agnostic club or Freethinker Society? Here are some things that would really keep me up at night, were they true.

One point of this exercise is this: if we cannot consider what could make Christianity too hard to swallow, then we are too fuzzy on just what propositions about reality Christianity teaches. A position or worldview should be able to be falsifiable, for, if a worldview is not falsifiable, then there aren't any coherent propositions that express the tenets of the worldview. A worldview that is not falsifiable confers no advantage on the individual --- he can claim no handle on truth, though he might be able to get invitations to Oprah and Larry King.

The points below are merely some fleshed-out thoughts, and are not intended to be fully systematic, but mere rough guides for the time being. The attempt to begin to answer the question: What would make Christianity seem false, or, at best, a worldview that is held at one's own rational peril?

(1) Here is one thing that would do the trick: An adequate demonstration that the gospels and writings that comprise the New Testament [NT] were written well after their alleged authors had died.

For example, were somebody to give a good internal and external argument that the fourth gospel was not written by John, son of Zebedee, sometime late in the 1st century, I'd have most excellent reason to question the [seeming] eyewitness testimony that relates to Jesus.

As another example, were somebody to give evidence that, say, the Pastoral Letters to Timothy and Titus were deutero- or trito-Pauline, written in the second century, then it would be hard to take them seriously, especially since the letters [like the other letters of Paul] begin with Paulos in the introduction. If a letter is wrong in such a basic point as to its author, it seems hard to impute any a priori credibility to the contents of the letter.

I used to subscribe to Biblical Archaeology Review while in graduate school, and I remember seeing an ad there that asked "Was Luke a Woman?" while promoting a book that would presumably argue for such a thing. Now, if the book's thesis is true, one's faith should certainly be shipwrecked. Even were Christianity true in some sense, we'd have no objective basis for seeing that it is true, nor would we have any sort of warrant in adhering to it. The truth of Christianity would exist in a sort of historical and spiritual vacuum, if it happened to exist at all.

(2) In a point that is somewhat derivative to the first point, something that would destroy at worst or severely rattle at best my confidence that Christianity is true would be some sort of argument that the eyewitnesses, most especially the apostles, were not reliable, or were not exemplars of verity, or that their senses could not be trusted.

The general idea here is that Jesus rose from the dead, the eyewitnesses and apostles claimed. [St Thomas, a man after my heart, was a bit slow in realizing this.] The main point here, stated briefly, is that those who were privy to first-hand knowledge of the resurrection, as well as those that were privy to those who had first-hand knowledge of the resurrection, were willing to die for the truth of the resurrection.

What I've seen in response to this is a blurring of issues. Haven't Mormons died for Mormonism? Hasn't your friendly neighborhood Mohammedan blown himself and a few infidels up for Allah?

The answers are yes and yes, respectively. But the Mormons and the Mohammedan are not dying for what they themselves know either directly or from first-hand testimony --- they are dying for what they think is true. If I were willing to die today for Christianity, that would not be an argument for the veracity of Christianity; I would be no different than the Mormon or the Mohammedan in that respect --- I merely think Christianity is true, I don't know it directly nor am I on any intimate terms with those who did have direct knowledge, hence my death would not have any more evidential value than the chunks of the Muslim terrorist that lie on the ground post-explosion.

This is not a sophistic quibble. Men will die for what they think is true, but, it is the greatest of extremes for men to die for something that they empirically know to be false. In fact, this would seem to be one of the strongest evidential arguments for a claim. Dying for something in this situation would seem to be a mark of high character.

Yes, but perhaps those eyewitnesses were deceived. Perhaps their senses were playing tricks on them. Perhaps, for some reason, they merely thought they, for example, beheld the resurrected Jesus.

This sort of counter has a good deal of prima facie plausibility --- let's certainly admit that.

However, the claims for Christianity have some different attributes than, say, the person down the street who claims that he was abducted by a UFO last week. Here are the differences as seen by the PP:

(a) If we take the gospels semi-seriously, we see that the eyewitnesses were not pre-conditioned to believe in the resurrection. Jesus tells the disciples that the temple shall in three days be rebuilt, but this idea was not accepted. Their seeing the risen Jesus really can't be called wish-fulfillment. When Jesus died on the cross, it seems from the text that one could fairly say that in the disciples' minds, it was a case of "Game Over --- take your ball and go home."

(b) There didn't seem to be much of a motivational factor for going on anyway even if Jesus did rise from the dead. The early believers were a very small group, despised by the Jewish ruling classes; the early believers saw the greatness of the Roman Imperium all around them; the early believers were one group out of many other competing religious systems. One could have no confidence going into things that this seemingly new religion --- The Way --- would find its place in the world.

(c) There is an empirical basis that is missing from, say, UFO abduction stories. Besides the women at the tomb and the disciples, St Paul freely mentions the five hundred eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus in his Corinthian epistle. People in the good ol' days sure didn't seem any more or less credulous than people today, and Paul mentions these eyewitnesses without any seeming hesitation. People today, just as back then, tried to evaluate claims. There was no spiritualizing of the resurrection, but a continual pointing to its historical reality as testified to by eyewitnesses.

These are general points, and they're not airtight. But, they're reasonable. The reader is urged to read some of the liberal and modernist explanations of the resurrection, the miracles, and so on, and invited to see the heavy speculative nature of such discussions. It doesn't, to me, seem as if the classical evidentialist Christian is going any farther out on a limb here than in any other situation in which a decision upon a claim must be made.

In the end, however, one can psychologize away points (a)-(c). The Deists and Unitarians of old did that. The 19th-century German rationalists did that. And, often today, our progressive church leaders in collars and robes do that. [CS Lewis made the quip that in the old days parishoners felt sheepish for not believing as strongly as their priests or pastors; now, they feel sheepish for believing much more strongly than their pastors.] However, the psychologizing sorts of arguments are generally banal and useless, for they can be turned right back on the psychologizer and the rationalist. More importantly, the rationalistic and psychologizing sorts of arguments could be used to wipe away any singular personage or event in history. This was recognized two centuries ago and parodied in the famous essay
Historical Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte by Archbishop Richard Whately. The reader can enjoy this essay and see for himself whether it makes my point.

Here are some final comments for this thread:

(i) Would I have liked more evidence? The answer: of course. But upon deeper thought, I seem to have a reasonable evidence for believing the eyewitness testimony of the disciples and those around them. What evidence do I have for believing that other singularly important historical personae actually existed and did what they did? It seems that the evidence for the person and work of Christ are comparable to those people of antiquity, though here the Pedantic Protestant is willing to admit that he hasn't fully surveyed the area.

(ii) Perhaps I'm being credulous because I want Christianity to be true and/or I want some sort of justification for holding to its its tenets. Because I have years of study and living invested in the whole Christianity shebang, it would cause great psychic damage to admit that the enterprise is a failure.

Or so says the interlocutor who thinks she has gotten inside my head.

By way of reply: in many important respects I don't want Christianity to be true. I don't want to feel guilty while engaging in my favorite sins. I don't want to be labelled a "religious nut" even by friends, family, colleagues. I don't want to have to pass on dating some pretty woman because we're unequally yoked. And then there is that doctrine of Hell, clearly stated in scripture, that terrifies and offends my sensibilities, which doctrine expresses one side of God, namely, his justice and immutable goodness. There is also the fact that Christians are generally viewed at by the culture-at-large as epistemically deficient, backwood rubes, etc. There are no social brownie points that come from being a Christian.

With the above paragraph, the interlocutor's little sand castle is pretty much washed away into the sea.

This is not to be taken in the sense of there being nothing that I like about Christianity; I merely want to point out that there are most excellent reasons to wish it to be false, so that psychologizing is here seen as the cheap parlor trick that it truly is.

(iii) The third and final comment here is that readers would very much enjoy a careful reading and study of Bertrand Russell's famous essay Why I Am Not A Christian. This appears to be a still-popular piece of popular atheology. Russell seemed to believe that he had falsified Christianity with his arguments. Readers must decide for themselves.

Summary: I've lightly discussed two things [among others] that would cause problems for my Christianity: (1) the dating and authorship of the gospels and other NT writings being other than what we claim, and (2) the existence of reasonable attacks on the truthfulness of the disciples and the other eyewitnesses. I've added some color commentary, which by necessity must be brief. [Each topic could be the subject of its own book.]

The next thread in this series will give some other practical falsifiers. It is important that Christians present some well-defined and STATIONARY goalposts to the world-at-large if we are to claim any sort of potential justification for holding what we do, and the next thread hopes to make the goalposts even more well-defined.


Anonymous 1689 said...

Thank you for bringing Whateley's hilarious essay to my attention.

Saturday, May 07, 2005 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger Pedantic Protestant said...

You're welcome.

In turn, that essay was pointed out to me by a friend two or so years ago. The essay is very wry satire, but the points it makes still stand today.


Saturday, May 07, 2005 11:59:00 AM  

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