09 July 2013

The great apologetic switcharoo

I go back and forth about the value of debating Christians. On the one hand, I like being challenged and although the odds of me re-converting (at least all the way back to evangelical Christianity) are pretty much nil at this point, I've occasionally found that discussing theological and philosophical issues with educated theists can get me to consider things I hadn't thought of on my own.

But more often than not, it's just an endless morass. And I think a big part of what makes the whole affair sometimes seem like such a waste of time is what I like to call the great apologetic switcharoo. Religious apologists always begin their arguments with the confidence that any rational person ought to be convinced, logically and rationally, that not only does God exist but, hey who'da thunk, it's the god of tribal Palestine and not any of the other tens of thousands of gods scattered throughout human history.

As you start to push back against apologists, though, a funny thing happens. They switch, usually very subtly, to the old You can't disprove it! canard. Take for example the odious William Lane Craig's response to a challenge on the Kalam – namely, that just because causality applies within the universe doesn't mean it makes any sense or implies that causality must apply to the universe:
You could also do a thought experiment. Ask [atheists] why one timeless entity—say, a number—could not depend timelessly for its existence on another timeless entity. Why is that impossible? Why couldn't God timelessly sustain a number in existence? That would clearly be an asymmetric causal relation. Why is that impossible?
Did you see what he did there? He didn't actually offer an argument, much less any evidence, that we should think any of those propositions are true. He just blurts out that we can't disprove it. And hey, if you can't disprove something it's gotta be true, right? This is not an isolated incident – it's endemic in the Christian apologist community. They don't want to approach questions as a rational skeptic – i.e., "Why should I believe these claims are true?" Rather, they assume their position to be true and challenge skeptics to provide "defeators".

Let's take a central issue regarding the truth or falsity of Christianity: the Bible. Is the Bible really the divinely inspired, possibly inerrant (depending on your theology) word of the Lord and Creator of the entire Universe? Or is it just a fairly mundane collection of writings from a relatively primitive subset of Middle-Eastern cultures? In my experience, Christians tend to treat the issue as though there are two positions being debated:
  • The Bible is the word of God
  • The Bible is demonstrably false
But there's obviously a third possibility:
  • There's no reason to think the Bible is the word of God
Notice the difference here between the second and third positions.  The fact that something is not demonstrably false does not constitute a reason to affirm that it is true. I cannot demonstrate that Buddha did not achieve enlightenment or that Muhammad is not the prophet of Allah. And no amount of quasi-academic blathering will change the fact that no Christian can disprove those claims, either. The fact that something can't be disproved is utterly trivial. There is a virtually infinite number of propositions that can't be disproved, but we don't go around believing in them. Disprove the existence of leprechauns! I dare you to try.

I wrote a post a while back, which I've since pinned, called The Gospel Challenge. I tackle some of the problems with the New Testament, although not in as much detail as I did in my review of Lee Strobel's movie The Case for Christ. This was my challenge:
[Given] the basic facts, I challenge you to demonstrate either logically and/or empirically that the only plausible explanation for the gospels is that they are the inspired words of God – that no reasonable person could conclude, based on the facts, that the gospels are nothing more than the works of ordinary, delusional human beings.
In other words, what evidence would compel a rational skeptic to accept that there is no other plausible explanation for the gospel accounts aside from the Christian one? See, Christians generally structure their arguments based on the fact that they've already assumed the gospels are true; they then challenge skeptics to demonstrate that they're wrong. But that's impossible, for the same reason it's impossible to demonstrate that Buddha didn't achieve enlightenment or that unicorns don't exist. What I'm really interested isn't how Christians defend assumptions they're already made, but how they arrived at those assumptions in the first place. If a Christian could imagine themselves as someone from another country (or heck, another planet) who had never heard of Christianity, what is the evidence that would compel them to accept the Christian explanation of the Bible?

This 'switcharoo' is another strategy – along with the misguided strategy of using philosophical arguments to prove some kind of god exists – that I feel we non-believers need to call Christians out on more mercilessly, because they use it all the freaking time. Too often, debates get lost in the minutiae. One of the reasons Christians think William Lane Craig "wins" debates is because he sets up a lot of little fires for his interlocutor to chase. He rambles on about Bayesian probability or the Bord-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, and challenges his opponents to explain "four facts" about the Resurrection. If instead of chasing around these small targets his opponents instead focused on the big picture – challenging the idea that philosophy can be used to prove God's existence in the first place, or pointing out that there's no evidence the Resurrection is a historical event that needs explaining at all – these conversations would be much shorter and the farce of apologetic evangelism would be exposed for the sideshow it is.

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