Some Remarks on Biblical Prophecy

Recently, Greta Christina of Greta Christina's Blog invited me to comment on a post of hers in which a theist mentioned my article "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists". This person claimed that the fulfillment of prophecies in the Bible should be sufficient reason for atheists to believe in Christianity. That comment can be viewed here.

Below is the text of my reply:

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Hi all,

Greta Christina invited me here, since Mr. Cawley was commenting on an article of mine. I'd like to address some of his claims about the alleged accuracy of biblical prophecy.

Let me be clear about one thing at the outset: some of the nations and cities whom the biblical authors claimed would be destroyed, were indeed destroyed. This, however, is hardly stunning proof of the foresight of the Bible's authors. Most cities and nations of antiquity have fallen, and most of the ones that are around today will probably fall eventually, also, if only you're willing to wait long enough.

This is especially true given that Mr. Cawley seems to allot infinite time for any of the Bible's prophecies to come true. Notice, for example, how he claims that the destruction of Ashkelon - in 1270 AD, for truth's sake - was a fulfillment of Zephaniah's prophecy of doom nearly two thousand years earlier. This is the stunning foresight that should so impress us all? If I predict that a great flood will strike Egypt, and then a thousand years later such a thing does happen, does that make me a miraculously gifted prophet? Hardly: it just means that if you predict a fairly likely event and are willing to wait forever, sooner or later your prediction will be fulfilled.

To prove that your prophetic powers are up to snuff, it's not enough to predict a likely event and then wait for eternity. Rather, as I said in my article, such prophecies should come with specific, falsifiable details about time, place and circumstance. In this case, Mr. Cawley has definitely fallen off the horse. Most of his alleged "fulfillments" are derived only by removing relevant context - stripping out specific details which show that the Bible's prophecies actually did not come true as written. I'm not going to address his every example, but as a sample of the kind of misrepresentation he repeatedly engages in, let's consider this point about Egypt:

Of Egypt as a whole, Ezekiel said in Ezekiel 29:15, "It shall be the basest of the kingdoms; neither shall it exalt itself any more above the nations: for I will diminish them, that they shall no more rule over the nations." Egypt continued as a great and powerful nation for many centuries after the prophecy was written, but finally Egypt became a backward, impoverished, weak nation and has remained so ever since.

Mr. Cawley, you are blatantly guilty of out-of-context quotation. But that's not surprising, considering the full details of the prophecy show that, rather than a success, this was a conspicuous failure. Here's the full text of what Ezekiel said would happen to Egypt:

"Behold, therefore I am against thee, and against thy rivers, and I will make the land of Egypt utterly waste and desolate, from the tower of Syene even unto the border of Ethiopia. No foot of man shall pass through it, nor foot of beast shall pass through it, neither shall it be inhabited forty years. And I will make the land of Egypt desolate in the midst of the countries that are desolate, and her cities among the cities that are laid waste shall be desolate forty years: and I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, and will disperse them through the countries. Yet thus saith the Lord God; At the end of forty years will I gather the Egyptians from the people whither they were scattered. And I will bring again the captivity of Egypt, and will cause them to return into the land of Pathros, into the land of their habitation; and they shall be there a base kingdom. It shall be the basest of the kingdoms; neither shall it exalt itself any more above the nations: for I will diminish them, that they shall no more rule over the nations."

—Ezekiel 29:9-15

I think even Mr. Cawley can agree that this never happened. Egypt has never been desolate, much less for forty years at a time, and the Egyptian people were neither scattered nor later regathered. That entire string of predictions failed to come true. It's only the coda at the end, about Egypt losing its superpower status, that Mr. Cawley seizes on and elevates to prophetic status - and, again, history shows that most empires and superpowers decline in status given sufficient time, so this is hardly proof of divine foreknowledge.

For one more example, let's consider Mr. Cawley's claims about Tyre. Again, he's guilty of removing relevant context to disguise prophetic failures. Ezekiel didn't just predict that Tyre would be destroyed; he predicted it would be destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon:

"For thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will bring upon Tyrus Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, a king of kings, from the north, with horses, and with chariots, and with horsemen, and companies, and much people. He shall slay with the sword thy daughters in the field: and he shall make a fort against thee, and cast a mount against thee, and lift up the buckler against thee. And he shall set engines of war against thy walls, and with his axes he shall break down thy towers. By reason of the abundance of his horses their dust shall cover thee: thy walls shall shake at the noise of the horsemen, and of the wheels, and of the chariots, when he shall enter into thy gates, as men enter into a city wherein is made a breach."

—Ezekiel 26:7-10

Again, this is a false prophecy. Nebuchadnezzar did indeed besiege Tyre for many years - but, as any history book will tell you, he failed to conquer it. (Tyre is a city on an island just offshore, with suburbs on the mainlands. Nebuchadnezzar conquered those, but failed to break into the island city.) Alexander the Great did conquer it later, but he was not the object of Ezekiel's prophecy.

But now comes the real howler:

God also said in Ezekiel 26:14, "And I will make thee like the top of a rock: thou shalt be a place to spread nets upon; thou shalt be built no more: for I the Lord have spoken it, saith the Lord God." The site of ancient Tyre is quite suitable for habitation, but the prophecy has stood fulfilled now for over 2, 000 years, and Tyre has never been rebuilt.

This is completely wrong. Tyre exists to this day, and plenty of people still live there. Here's some modern satellite imagery of this supposedly non-existent, never-rebuilt city:

http://www.earthspots.com/ExploreEarthSpot.php?NID=1211&MT=1

When Biblical apologists resort to denying the existence of entire cities in an attempt to mangle history sufficiently to make their prophecies appear to come true, you know there's nothing more that needs to be said.

August 17, 2007, 6:51 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink18 comments
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What Is Christianity Good For?

What is Christianity good for?

I ask this question in all seriousness, not as an insult. I genuinely want to know. Eternal life in Heaven is usually held out as the greatest benefit of becoming a Christian, but that reward is said to be in the next life and is impossible for us to verify. Does Christianity have any benefits in this life, any evidence that can be offered now as partial substantiation of its grander promises later on?

I'm not looking for personal testimonies about how conversion to Christianity has changed the testifier's life. Such stories may be deeply felt and sincerely believed, but they are also anecdotal, and like all anecdotal evidence, they have a substantial problem of confirmation bias. People who convert to Christianity and experience positive change will naturally credit this change to their conversion and want to tell everyone in sight. However, people who convert to Christianity and experience no change, or change for the worse, will be far less likely to speak up. There's no guarantee that the people who do speak out are a representative sample. What I'm looking for is sound statistical evidence that Christian belief leads to positive results at a rate greater than chance and ideally at a rate greater than that of other religions.

So far, the evidence has come up negative in several categories:

If Christianity is not good for these things, what is it good for? I'm open to evidence if any person has any to present. But in the meantime, I have a hypothesis of my own.

In 2005, the sociologist Gregory S. Paul published a much-cited study showing that quantifiable measures of societal health tend to correlate inversely with religiosity. In other words, the worse off a society's people are, the more likely they are to be religious. The most striking example is the United States, long an aberration among industrialized countries for its unusually high levels of religious fundamentalism, and also a standout for its comparatively high levels of social ills such as homicide, juvenile mortality, teen pregnancy and STD infection.

Together with Phil Zuckerman, Paul has now published a new essay in Edge magazine, "Why the Gods Are Not Winning", which documents the dwindling of Christianity throughout much of the First World (again, America being the exception), as compared to an explosive and historically unprecedented growth of atheism and agnosticism. I highly recommend the entire article - some of the quotes from it are real beauties:

Far from providing unambiguous evidence of the rise of faith, the devout compliers of the [World Christian Encyclopedia] document what they characterize as the spectacular ballooning of secularism by a few hundred-fold! It has no historical match. It dwarfs the widely heralded Mormon climb to 12 million during the same time, even the growth within Protestantism of Pentecostals from nearly nothing to half a billion does not equal it.

...What has changed is how people view the Bible. In the 1970s nearly four in ten took the testaments literally, just a little over one in ten thought it was a mixture of history, fables, and legends, a three to one ratio in favor of the Biblical view. Since then a persistent trend has seen literalism decline to between a quarter and a third of the population, and skeptics have doubled to nearly one in five. If the trend continues the fableists will equal and then surpass the literalists in a couple of decades.

(Note: Decades, not centuries!)

Even the megachurch phenomenon is illusory. A spiritual cross of sports stadiums with theme parks, hi-tech churches are a desperate effort to pull in and satisfy a mass-media jaded audience for whom the old sit in the pews and listen to the standard sermon and sing some old time hymns does not cut it anymore. Rather than boosting church membership, megachurches are merely consolidating it.

(Paul and Zuckerman's comments here echo my post of last fall, "Receding Waters". As intimidating as the megachurches seem, they cannot mask the clear trend that American religiosity, and especially American Christianity, is declining rather than gaining.)

...America's disbelievers atheists now number 30 million, most well educated and higher income, and they far outnumber American Jews, Muslims and Mormons combined. There are many more disbelievers than Southern Baptists, and the god skeptics are getting more recruits than the evangelicals.

The thesis of Paul and Zuckerman's article, which strikes me as entirely reasonable, is that people cling to faith for reassurance in environments of poverty, stress and uncertainty. (This does not exclude the possibility that faith can also perpetuate some of the ills its adherents seek to escape from.) Conversely, as nations become more prosperous and life becomes more comfortable and secure, the need for religion as a supernatural security blanket decreases. This, above all else, seems to be what religion and Christianity specifically are good for - as a source of reassurance in troubled times. But this does not mean they are the only or the best source, and happily, this suggests that two atheist goals are entirely aligned: as we work to improve people's lives in real and measurable ways, the grasping after religion as a method of coping will inevitably decline.

June 15, 2007, 7:08 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink43 comments
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How Did the Apostles Die?

"Now the names of the twelve apostles are these; The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the publican; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him."

—Matthew 10:2-4 (see also Mark 3:14-19)

Lately I've been thinking about the twelve apostles of Christianity. According to Mark and Matthew, their names are as given above, although puzzlingly, the parallel list in Luke 6 omits Lebbaeus Thaddaeus and replaces him with James' brother Judas, or Jude (apologetic tradition claims that the two are the same person). After Judas Iscariot's death, Acts 1 informs us that Matthias was chosen to replace him.

An oft-heard Christian apologetic asks, "why would the apostles die for a lie?" Save for John, tradition holds, all of the original apostles eventually died martyr's deaths - yet if the resurrection of Jesus was an invented story, they must have known that, and why would anyone go willingly to their death for a claim they knew to be untrue?

I'll get into this claim in a moment, but first, an observation. One of the things I think any Christian should find strange is how little space the Bible gives to the twelve apostles. A few prominent ones such as Peter and John get more attention, but most of them vanish completely out of history after being named, with readers never being told anything else about them or anything they did. It is remarkable how unimportant most of the apostles seem to be in the Bible.

Of all the apostles, the Bible records the death of only two: Judas Iscariot, who either hanged himself or fell and burst open (depending on which contradictory gospel account one believes), and James, son of Zebedee and brother of John, whom Herod killed "with the sword" (Acts 12:2). The Bible has Jesus imply, in John 21:18-19, that Simon Peter will die by crucifixion, but such an event is not recorded in the text.

The question is, how did the other apostles die? More importantly, how does anyone know? Where textual evidence is lacking, tradition has obliged, and a wide variety of local legends sprang up in medieval times about the apostles' journeys and eventual deaths. But most of these traditions are late, invented hundreds of years after the fact, and lack any basis in earlier evidence. They are simply stories, tall tales. Such popular myths provide no support whatsoever for modern Christian claims that the apostles were willingly martyred.

Below is a brief survey of what history has to say about the apostles, and what sources our traditions draw from:

Judas Iscariot: According to the Bible, either committed suicide by hanging (Matthew 27:5) or fell down and exploded (Acts 1:18). Not considered a martyr.

John: Not said to have been martyred. Reportedly died of old age.

James, son of Zebedee: Killed by Herod (Acts 12:2). The Bible gives no further information about his death, including whether it was willing. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius quoted an earlier, lost work by Clement of Alexandria which allegedly claims that James' calm demeanor at trial sufficiently impressed one of his accusers to convert him (source).

Simon Peter: Crucifixion, as implied by Jesus in John 21:18-19. Tradition usually holds that this occurred in Rome, as mentioned by second-century sources such as Tertullian and the apocryphal Acts of Peter. The Acts of Peter also claims that Peter accepted crucifixion willingly, making him one of the few apostles for which the claim of willing martyrdom is at all plausible. Eusebius dismissed this book as spurious and heretical (source).

Andrew: Reportedly martyred by crucifixion on an X-shaped cross ("St. Andrew's cross"). According to legend, he taught a gathered crowd while on the cross and refused their offer to take him down. This information comes from the apocryphal, probably second-century Acts of Andrew. Eusebius dismissed this book as spurious and heretical (source).

Philip: According to the apocryphal and probably fourth-century Acts of Philip, died after being hung upside-down with iron hooks through his ankles by the proconsul of Hierapolis. According to this book, before dying Philip cursed his enemies, causing seven thousand people to be suddenly swallowed up by an abyss. In return, Jesus appeared and rebuked Philip for "returning evil for evil", and told him that he would be admitted to Heaven, but only after being tortured outside its gates for forty days as punishment. Like Andrew, Philip allegedly refused a crowd's offer of rescue. The New Advent Catholic encyclopedia calls this work "purely legendary and a tissue of fables" (source).

Bartholomew: According to the third-century schismatic bishop Hippolytus, he was crucified in Armenia (source). A different tradition claims he was beheaded in India on the orders of King Astreges, who belonged to a demon-worshipping cult (source). Some traditions add that he was flayed alive before, or instead of, suffering either of these two fates. The New Advent encyclopedia says the manner of his death is "uncertain" (source), and adds that other than his name, "Nothing further is known of him".

Thomas: Tradition holds that he was sent to India to preach, where he was killed by being stabbed with a spear. This claim is made by local Indian Christians and an apocryphal gospel called the Acts of Thomas, which Eusebius dismissed as spurious and heretical (source). The New Advent encyclopedia says that "Little is recorded" of Thomas' life, and that "it is difficult to discover any adequate support" for the tradition of his death in India. It also notes that the Acts of Thomas presents Thomas as the twin brother of Jesus, which is not accepted by Christians today or in the past and seems to be a Christian/Gnostic-themed variation of a pagan salvation cult that followed twin gods called the Dioscuri.

Matthew: Conflicting traditions. Catholic.org says, "Nothing definite is known about his later life", and it is even "uncertain whether he died a natural death or received the crown of martyrdom". The Christian History Institute says, "We have nothing but legend about Matthew's death." Even among those who do believe he was martyred, there is no evidence as to where. Another source says there is conflicting information about whether he was martyred in Egypt or in Persia. The manner of his death is unknown, and some churches even say he died a natural death (source).

James, son of Alphaeus: Conflicting traditions. There are several people named "James" in the New Testament and early Christian history, and it is uncertain which, if any, should be identified with this apostle. He is often identified with the "James the Less" mentioned in Mark 15:40 as the son of Mary and Clopas, which is fairly uncontroversial. However, the Catholic church also identifies him with James, the brother of Jesus, which is not widely accepted by Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches. If this identification is correct, the Jewish historian Josephus says that James was stoned by the Pharisees. This is seconded by Hippolytus. However, other sources (example) say that James son of Alphaeus was martyred by crucifixion in Egypt.

Jude/Lebbaeus Thaddaeus: Conflicting traditions. It is often said that he went with Simon to preach in Armenia, though New Advent says this legend is a late development not mentioned by contemporary historians of that region. The Catholic Patron Saints Index says he was clubbed to death; however, the apocryphal Acts of Thaddeus says he died naturally. Still another account says he was crucified (source). No reliable written sources seem to exist to corroborate any of this.

Simon the Zealot: Conflicting traditions. According to Catholic.org, Western traditions hold that he was martyred in Persia with Jude, usually by crucifixion, while Eastern tradition says he died naturally in Edessa. Other sources, according to New Advent, variously give his place of death as Samaria (Israel), or Iberia (Spain), or Colchis (Georgia), or even Britain. Some sources dispute the crucifixion account and claim he was instead sawn in half.

Matthias: According to the 14th-century historian Nicephorus, died by crucifixion in Colchis, in the modern nation of Georgia. Alternatively, the 17th-century historian Louis-S├ębastien Le Nain de Tillemont says that he was stoned and then beheaded in Jerusalem. According to the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia, "all... information concerning the life and death of Matthias is vague and contradictory" (source). Many apocryphal sources confuse Matthias and Matthew.

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As we can see, information regarding the life and death of the apostles is extremely dubious and fragmentary. This fatally undermines the Christian claim that the apostles were martyred for their faith; there is simply no good evidence that would support such a claim. The gaping void in the historical record when it comes to these twelve men is certainly strange and unexpected under the assumptions of orthodoxy - how could the original twelve Christians, handpicked by Jesus himself, vanish so completely out of history so quickly? However, it does support the mythicist theory that early Christianity arose from a tissue of legends, not from the exploits of actual historical figures. Jesus, the central figure of this myth, became better fleshed out over time, but this process never proceeded so far as to be applied to the apostles.

There is another important point here: for the modern apologists' claims to be proven, we must have evidence not only that the apostles died as martyrs, but that they died in a situation where recanting would have saved them. This requires specific and strong evidence, but then again, it is a very specific claim.

There is no biblical evidence that, for example, James could have saved himself by recanting Christianity. Herod might have been determined to kill him no matter what he said. The same goes for Peter's eventual presumed crucifixion. And these are the best attested of all the apostles' deaths (though that is a relative term). For the majority of the apostles, we have no good evidence even of how they died, much less that they could have saved themselves by recanting. Most of the sources we do have are late, contradictory, and dismissed as unfounded even by early Christian historians. The next time a Christian challenges you to explain why the apostles would have died for a lie, I suggest this response: "How do you know how the apostles died?" Judging by the cases I have seen, they will be unable to come up with an answer.

June 1, 2007, 6:07 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink75 comments
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New on Ebon Musings: The Screwtape Letters

A new essay has been posted on Ebon Musings, a review of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. While Lewis' attacks on atheism are largely misguided straw men, the book does offer a surprising amount of ammunition for atheists to use against fundamentalist Christianity.

This is an open thread. Comments and discussion are welcome.

November 15, 2006, 7:32 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink13 comments
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Are Evolved Minds Reliable Truth-Finders?

In recent years, Christian apologists such as Alvin Plantinga have advanced arguments purporting to prove that evolutionary naturalism is a self-refuting worldview. According to these people, if evolution is true and there is no intelligent creator-god, then humans' sensory and rational faculties were created by a blind process that is not concerned with truth or falsity, and therefore those faculties themselves could not reliably detect truth or falsity. The conclusion, as Plantinga and others would have it, is that if we believe evolutionary naturalism is true, we must distrust our own conclusions, including the belief in evolutionary naturalism. In this post, I will show that this argument is not just wrong, it is obviously wrong. An atheist has more than sufficient grounds to believe that their sensory and cognitive faculties are reliable, and it is not just probable but inevitable that a process of naturalistic evolution would result in this.

Over the past century and a half, our scientific study of the world has led to the conclusion that the human species, as well as all other life on this planet, was created by a process of evolution. Briefly described, evolution is a process by which living things that are better suited to survival in their environment tend to reproduce more abundantly, while living things less well suited reproduce less abundantly. The result of this is that genes which have a negative impact on survival tend to fade away, while those which contribute to survival are passed on and become more common, making them liable for further improvement in the next generation.

Our minds and senses, like all other adaptations of living species, were designed by evolution. And like all other adaptations, they could only have persisted to the degree that they aided our survival. If they did nothing but generate false beliefs, then at best, they would not harm our chances of survival, and far more likely would substantially decrease them. In either case, they would soon be eliminated by natural selection - in the latter case because they were an impediment to survival, in the former case because they were simply a waste of energy that could more usefully be spent elsewhere (like the eyes of blind cave fish). (The human brain consumes a substantial fraction of the body's total oxygen and energy consumption. Natural selection could never maintain such a costly adaptation unless it conferred substantial survival benefits.)

Clearly, then, in order for these faculties to persist, they must confer some survival benefit, and it is not difficult to see what that benefit is. What Christian apologists have ignored is that the ability to accurately perceive one's environment and respond appropriately is essential to survival. In this respect, evolution is concerned with the truth or falsity of a creature's beliefs, because while the evolutionary process is blind with respect to method, it is most definitely not blind with respect to results. A creature that could not respond correctly to its environment, or that did so only imperfectly, would be at a significant survival disadvantage compared to one that could perceive more accurately. Therefore, it should be obvious that, all else being equal, evolution will always favor greater accuracy of sensory perception - both the ability to sense the environment with greater fidelity and the disposition to respond correctly to those sensory impressions.

Consider a simple example: a bacterium trying to swim toward a source of nutrition. Suppose this bacterium has chemical receptors on its surface that can detect molecules drifting through the liquid medium all around it. To gain the maximum amount of nutrition, the bacterium needs to be able to sense the gradient - the direction in which nutrient molecules are more concentrated - since that will probably be the direction in which their source is located. Which, then, will have a greater chance of reproducing and passing on its genes - the bacterium that can accurately sense the gradient and move in that direction, or one that is blind to the gradient and strikes out in a random direction?

A bacterium has none of a human being's rich mental life, of course, and apologists such as Plantinga argue that while evolution would select for correct actions, it would not necessarily select for correct beliefs. But though this could be true for creatures whose actions are decoupled from their beliefs, human beings are not like this. If a creature will face more situations in its lifetime than its genes can explicitly program it for - if it cannot live solely by the autopilot of instinct, as human beings cannot and do not - then that creature must perceive its environment correctly in order to respond correctly. Accurate belief is the only sure way to produce correct action.

As an example of this, consider a more complex case: a troop of apes living in a forest, where interactions between individuals are a way of life. This mode of existence would favor a whole slew of new cognitive abilities: recognizing individuals and remembering their status in the group, remembering which group members are likely to reciprocate your favors, determining whether another individual can be bribed or deceived and being resistant to deception in turn, and group cooperation in hunting and defense. These cognitive feats all require sophisticated skills, including long-term memory and the ability to infer the contents of another individual's mind, and any individual ape that did poorly at these tasks would be outcompeted and taken advantage of by those that were superior, if not exiled from the group entirely. On the other hand, even a very imperfect capability to do these things would provide a selective foothold; the better a given ape was at it, the more that ape would prosper, and so once the capability existed at all it would be liable to refinement and improvement through natural selection. It should be clear that in these circumstances no false belief would give selective advantage in the way that true belief would.

Finally, consider a case involving a characteristically human ability: the manufacture and use of tools. Tool-making was a major evolutionary advantage that conferred a significant benefit on the primitive virtuosos that were best at it. However, it also requires even more skills in one's mental toolbox: sensitivity to fine-grained details of the environment, the ability to notice correlations, infer causality, imagine possible futures, classify objects into abstract categories, detect failures, and improve one's technique through practice and testing. None of this would be possible without a sophisticated and highly accurate set of perceptual and reasoning abilities. Again, false beliefs about what the best kind of rock is to chip into tools, or whether a blunt end will be just as good for a spear as a sharp point, or indeed any step of the process, will inevitably put their possessor at a severe disadvantage compared to the hominids who got it right.

Of course, this is not to say evolution will produce perfect sensory perception. It is obvious that we possess no such thing, and there are good reasons why. Evolution is a process of tradeoffs, and takes shortcuts whenever possible; it tends to produce a "good enough" solution rather than a perfect solution. This explains many common errors in human reasoning and perception, such as the urge to anthropomorphize natural phenomena, or our susceptibility to certain kinds of optical illusions. It should be a matter of no dispute that human brains are not perfectly reliable. However, we are not helpless to correct our own perceptual mistakes. Using our superior pattern-recognition abilities, we can perceive when our efforts have failed and alter our plans accordingly. More specifically, when we recognize a defect in our perception, we can overcome it using a prosthesis that compensates for the defect. An optical illusion such as the Muller-Lyer illusion can be overcome by using a physical prosthesis, such as a ruler. More subtle defects in our perception can be corrected by using a mental prosthesis - the scientific method.

Though it is not perfect, it is more than obvious that evolution will produce at least generally reliable mental tools for environmental perception, pattern recognition and abstract reasoning in any intelligent being. In light of this, the burden of proof is now on the presuppositionalists to explain why an evolutionary naturalist should not consider their own beliefs reliable.

In any case, this argument is not uniquely applicable to atheists. Christians have their own defeaters which by any rational reading should force them to believe that their minds and senses are unreliable.

For example, if a Christian believes that the Bible is true, they must believe that there are circumstances under which God will deceive people and cause them to believe lies (2 Chronicles 18:21-22, 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12). But if this is true, how can any Christian know that they are not one of the people God is deluding? By definition, if you are one of those people, you would not know it; a deception is not a deception if the person experiencing it recognizes it as such, and an omnipotent being could easily create a deception that a person could not see through. This means that a Christian must always admit the possibility that any of their beliefs may be delusions sent by God; but this in turn means that a Christian can never have complete confidence in any of their beliefs, including the belief that God sends people delusions or even the belief that Christianity is true. The Christian worldview undermines itself just as totally as Christians claim atheism does.

This conclusion is just a special case of the more general conclusion that belief systems incorporating inscrutable, unlimited supernatural beings can never give sufficient grounds for considering your beliefs justified, since there is always the possibility that those supernatural beings are deceiving you in undetectable ways for unknowable reasons of their own. By contrast, atheism excludes such malevolent possibilities; and while this does not prove atheism true, it does mean that it is consistent and that it provides a sufficient foundation for holding evidence-based beliefs in the first place. We can be, and often are, mistaken, but atheism at least offers us a chance to discover and correct those mistakes, without fear of mischievous supernatural beings thwarting our every attempt at finding out the truth.

February 13, 2006, 12:44 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink30 comments
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