Faith – is it good or bad? Why do we disagree?

Hello Pascal and friends! 🙂

There’s been some renewed discussion about faith and evidence in the last few posts and comments. I’ve touched on my issues with “faith” in previous posts like Is Love a Good Reason to Believe?, including why the word makes me uneasy as a non-believer. It’s been a while, though, and this is an important topic and we should try to come to an agreement while we’re covering it.

Pascal, in the last post you quoted Mike who had said the following:

… I’m certainly not adverse to … doing my best to convince others to embrace evidence based thinking instead of faith.

Thank you for the guest post, Mike! Very well done! 🙂

After this quote, Pascal, you highlighted that faith and evidence may be an acceptable approach for you and not an acceptable approach for me. You said:

… Russell and I have often reached a point of impasse here.  Is the word instead correct?  I feel that it is the pivot of the sentence at least, likely the paragraph, perhaps the thesis.

Let’s reason this out and clarify our differences. They may not be as stark and opposed as it seems. I have the floor while you’re hiking a mountain with your amazing family, so I’ll explain what faith means to me and you can tell me where you find disagreement.

At the risk of being far too long winded and spending too much of my limited time on this post (it’s already after 11 PM and I have an early start to a busy week tomorrow), I’ll try to keep this much shorter that I want to and save details for follow-up comments. Who am I kidding. That just means it will be 4k instead of 10k words. Haha. Onward.

Whether or not Socrates actually said this, I find it both cliché and extremely relevant.

The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.

What do we mean by faith? If communication is a transference of an idea from one person’s mind to another person’s, and if information theory (I’m almost finished with The Information and it’s one of my favorite books) cares about how accurately that idea is replicated, it seems essential that we cancel out the confusion and noise caused by potential meanings we don’t intend when we use words like “faith.”

Here are a few of the many, many potential things that will come to someone’s mind when one mentions faith. This is all off the top of my head, and I’m sure each of you can add many more. The point I want to make is that they tend to fall into three basic categories. Some definitions put faith in a positive light, some a more neutral, and some are more negative.

Neutral definitions of “faith”

1. Hope

2. Desire or expectation

3. Belief, confidence or trust in a person, object, religion, idea or view. (

Anti-faith definitions non-believers tend to hold

4. Blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence (Richard Dawkins)

5. Believing something for no good reason (Matt Dillahunty)

6. Only needed when there is insufficient evidence to hold a desired belief

7. Wishful thinking – I hope it’s true therefore I have complete confidence

8. A bias, especially special pleading, that is thus less likely to lead to truth

9. That which is required to move one in a desired direction from a position of non-belief to a position of belief

Religiously-based definitions of “faith” that believers tend to hold

10. The substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)

11. Complete trust or confidence; based on spiritual apprehension rather than truth (Google or Siri grabbed this from somewhere)

12. An educated decision about a personal religious conviction, based on evidence, and not blind

13. A virtuous quality (something worthy to be desired, the more faith you have the more righteous you are) that makes one right with God

14. That which is granted by God to some, in varying degrees, in order to fulfill his plans.

See the Christianity section of the Wikipedia page on Faith for more interpretations.

What follows is my take on these definitions and some recommendations to readers that might help more of us increase our understanding of one-another’s perspective. Let me pause here and say that my view is not “the right view.” People come to this from different angles and my goal is not to convince anyone that X is how faith “should be interpreted.” What I hope to do here is clarify “why,” in many cases, there is disagreement between believers and non-believers about the virtue of faith. This comes from my own limited perspective, so add it to yours only if it helps. 🙂

Why the neutral definitions of faith (1-3) should be avoided

Recommendation #1: Don’t use “faith” as a substitute for a better word with a clearer meaning

If we mean something like #1-3, we should consider using words other than “faith” unless we are certain that everyone in the audience is on the same page. When we replace perfectly good and appropriate words like, confidence, trust, belief, etc., with nebulous words like faith, we risk causing some to misunderstand our meaning due to the ambiguity of “faith.” For example, if you believe in Young Earth Creationism and you tell an atheist she “has faith in Evolution or Darwinism that is no different from the faith you have,” you’re conflating two different definitions in the mind of your audience. I’ll explain why in a moment. If you use the word “confidence” instead of faith, you remove this ambiguity. You also reduce the chance that a non-believer will assume you mean “religious faith.” There is a strong difference between confidence, or trust, (terms where “faith” is often inserted) and religious faith. It’s this key difference that is usually being conflated in most of these scenarios. So, if you mean confidence, say confidence. If you mean trust, say trust. Save “faith” for religious faith, unless you really know your audience and “faith” fits what they’ve expect for the context, or unless you’re willing to take the time explaining what you mean in more detail.

Why non-believers should be cautious when using the anti-faith definitions (4-9)

If we choose to assert, like Dawkins did (#4), that the trust girding faith is blind, we are erecting a straw man. Perhaps you can think of a belief that isn’t based on some evidence, but I cannot. The question is not whether evidence is present, but whether that evidence is of the caliber that warrants the level of belief a person is assigning to it. Dawkins does have a point that some faith, particularly some religious faith, is held in spite of what should be compelling evidence in opposition. However, the pivot is here: compelling to whom? They have sufficient evidence in their mind, or, by definition, they wouldn’t believe what they have faith in. Is their manner of reasoning about their evidence grounded in a mechanism that is more likely to lead to objective truth? That is the key question.

Definition 5 also turns on this point. What is “good” evidence? That is where the believer and the non-believer tend to differ, and it is the real heart of the issue about the meaning of faith. I just made up definitions 6-9 but most of them probably came form my subconscious after being reconstructed from something I previously heard. As a non-believer, I should be careful before thinking of faith this way because each use of the word requires it’s own evaluation. People often don’t mean “religious faith” when they say “faith,” and even religious faith doesn’t always meet the criteria listed in 6-9.

Why non-believers tend to distrust the religious definitions of “faith” (10-14)

First, let me say that I have immense respect for faith. I know that statement won’t sit well with many of my fellow non-believers, but I must be honest. I know the indwelling presence of joy and strength that comes from faith first-hand. It is a confidence, an assurance, an acceptance and a love like no other. Neuroscience might note that it can act like an addiction and a high like any other positive endorphin trip. That doesn’t change the experience. I just wanted to start by identifying with the believers before I explain why the feelings, while deeply treasured, are still subject to the assessment that follows.

The first definition in that set (10) makes faith sound like something to be avoided – at least that’s what the rational parts of my conscious mind say (some believer’s may call that the devil). Paul sounds poetic and it’s in the Bible so a vast number of people take it to be God’s definition and wholly accurate. This is just the KJV but please look up the possible meanings of the words in the Strong’s concordance. I use this almost every time I look up a verse in the Bible. Here’s the link to Hebrews 11:1 where this faith verse is recorded. Click the words to where else they’re used in the Bible. Click the Strong’s numbers to see the possible meanings that the words may have.

The problem I’m seeing with Paul’s definition is the same problem many non-theists probably see with most religiously based definitions they hear. Non-theists, this is my personal assessment so please let me know whether or not you agree with the following. Religious definitions of faith are in opposition to the best tools of reasoning we have for determining Truth.

I experience the sublime, but at the end of the day, the substance of hope is really best described as just “hope.” “Evidence of things unseen” is either no evidence or weak evidence, in my opinion. So, in a sense, it seems as though he’s defining faith to be hope, courage, conviction, etc., that is based on non-testable and weak evidence. That sounds very much like poor reasoning that doesn’t take advantage of what we’ve learned about coming to true beliefs since Aristotle (before Paul) and in the scientific revolution in the last four hundred years. It was written before modern philosophy of science so we can’t expect it to have taken that into account, right? The two problems that keep that from being convincing to me are that it was written post-Aristotle, and it was supposedly divine. It could have used Plato/Socrates/Aristotle-like reasoning as a basis for determining which beliefs to hold with which level of certainty, but it did the opposite and left the door open for almost all the fallacies and biases of human reasoning to enter what we accept as true. Despite 1 Thessalonians 5:21 which tells us to test all things, we aren’t given any tools for testing that will have a high chance of leading us to truth. Testing them against the Bible is circular and thus shouldn’t be believed with full-confidence. In addition, Biblical faith makes predictions that are testable and don’t pass the test when measured (e.g. the average success-rate of prayer).

Please don’t write me off as a post-modernist strong-naturalist steeped in scientism. I’m actually none of those things, by my interpretation of them. I have reasons for believing what I do about epistemology and the good brought about by the modern philosophy of science. I don’t believe it’s the answer to every question, but I know what it’s strengths and limits are. Coming to “true beliefs” is a strength it has over “reasoning without it.” More on that in a minute.

Definition 11 isn’t any better. If complete trust is to be based on spiritual apprehension rather than on truth, this highlights the problem neatly. It’s about what we value more – a false belief that feels excellent out of the box or a true belief that we have to work at before it will feel good after leaving the false belief.

Please note that I’m not saying anything about the truth or falsity of the beliefs the Bible relates. All these arguments are equally applicable to any religious, political or other ideology. The question is not whether the Bible’s claims are true or false, but whether or not the mechanism it outlines for belief is one that is more likely to lead to True beliefs. As Matt Dillahunty has pointed out, our goal should be to minimize the number of false beliefs and maximize the number of true beliefs we hold. We should all strive to hold as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as possible. If that’s our goal, we must recognize the following.

Promoting certainty of belief in concepts that we hope are true, but for which we have little evidence, is a poor method of coming to objectively true beliefs. It may make us feel good, but even if it leads to a belief that is true but non-demonstrable, we can’t relate that knowledge to others because it’s subjective by nature. In that case it is indistinguishable from the follies of our bias reasonings and logical fallacies which, when discovered, leave many of us either deeply questioning our faith or deeply opposed to what we see as the “religion of science” or “liberal intellectualism.” Any angle I examine it, I can’t find Paul’s definition of faith to be more virtuous, righteous, or valuable in terms of leading to truth than evidence-based reasoning. If truth is individual, given by God, and steeped in a web of flawed human reasoning that opposes the order or critical thought, then I still want to know it but I can’t get there.

Definitions 12 through 14 don’t make religious faith sound any more desirable, to me personally, as a path to truth. I made them up anyway. Saying a decision is educated also makes it more prone to the the MR thing I wrote about in Why I respect Pascal (I won’t write the words here since I told some important people that I’d stop mentioning it :)). Definition 14 is actually the one I’m the most okay with because it has a clear meaning within the religious context and doesn’t prescribe anything directly about how we ought to reason. I find it dubious, but I don’t take umbrage with it. I used to believe I had it and I miss it.

Why else do non-believers feel uneasy when someone says they have faith (and don’t clarify that they don’t mean religious faith)

I want to wrap this up quickly but there is a lot to cover here. I’ll try to make it quick and save most of what I was going to say for a later time. The short answer, in my opinion, is that religious faith tends to demand a level of certainty beyond the level for which it can justify good evidence.

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. – David Hume

When I say good evidence, I do mean evidence that can be tested and falsified. In Paul’s time, personal conviction may have been “good evidence.” I don’t think so, because he had Aristotle who’s principles would have led to much better evidence, but then again, Plato’s logic include “forms” and was more of an armchair philosophy compared to the modern empirical sciences which are significantly more accurate. Either way, it seems undeniable to me that, by today’s standards, Paul’s definitions of religious faith do not qualify as good evidence today. Why?

First, listen to this audio lecture. Seriously. If you do I’ll celebrate your awesomeness in a post and email you a secret family dessert recipe. Pascal listened to it. 🙂 I know you’ll like the course because you read this far. If you made it this far you definitely have what it takes to make it through that awesome audio.

Second, briefly, science is a subset of reason. Life forms have been reasoning about the world, their environment, themselves, each other, etc., for millions of years or more. Humans for hundreds of thousands. That reasoning power is great at self-preservation, but not engineered for finding truth. There are many flaws in our reasoning. For an idea, read The Problem, and skim the Wikipedia pages for cognitive biases and logical fallacies. The vast majority of these effect each of us every day and we are completely unaware. This is another excellent audio book on the subject. The bottom line is that if there is an objective reality (and I believe there is), we do not observe it. We construct our reality as we experience it. I’m not even talking about quantum physics here. There are several layers of processing that occur between what IS, and what we consciously experience. Those layers are faulty at many places and lead us away from the truth of what IS. Worst of all, we aren’t even aware of it most of the time. For a taste to demonstrate the principle, look at the famous dress photo (blue and black or white and gold?) and these others I got from a TED talk a while back. There are many more such images. You can find similar images by googling “optical illusions” but Neil Degrasse Tyson says we should call them “brain failures” because that’s what they are…




Okay, so our human reasoning isn’t perfect at seeing things, but we can still trust our non-scientific reasoning about things, including the supernatural, right?


Not so much. 🙂

The philosophy of science has evolved over centuries as the most effective means of stopping poor reasoning that plagues all humans. A good scientific theory provides explanation, prediction and control. We can justify belief in many concepts, but confidence should be reserved (in my opinion) to a more moderate level when dealing with things that fall outside of what we can test. The appropriate level of confidence almost always falls below the threshold of what would be considered righteousness in a religious tradition. Religious faith demands a level of confidence that is at war with the best processes we have for searching out truth today. I am not saying that science is the only way to “know” something. I am saying that we must acknowledge that our non-scientific reasoning should be distrusted to a greater degree than our reasoning that follows the scientific process accurately. Science embraces methodological naturalism which means it doesn’t say anything about the supernatural one way or the other. While it won’t tell us what God’s nature is, it can attempt things like determining which clearly defined hypotheses are less likely than others based on the predictions those hypotheses make (assuming they interact with the world in some way).

We can believe X about God Y, but if we have the same level of confidence about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin than we do about whether the sun will rise tomorrow, we’re placing as much confidence in our demonstrably far-less trustworthy evolutionary reasoning as we are in our reasoning based on science, which is encompasses the latest advances in thought throughout history (with a demonstrable track record of high-success).

The real issue is whether or not something is falsifiable. If it isn’t, we can still believe it and potentially justly so. But we can’t call it science. Popper helped solidify that with his problem of demarcation. Science which encompasses mathematics, statistics, probabilities, confidence intervals, margins of error, peer reviews, efforts to disprove hypotheses, checks against personal biases, double-blind trials, and the formidable advantage of formulas and logic to weed out the ambiguous nature of human reasoning and language – is far more likely, on average, to lead to true beliefs (beliefs that accurately reflect the reality that is) than using non-scientific processes based on flawed reasoning and circular logic about how we feel about a given subject.

If you disagree, I’ll be happy to dedicate a post to defending that position. Before doing so, consider that most religions require an ante of belief upon conversion. You must believe X and Y to be a true follower of religion Z. Once there, the balance between eternal bliss and eternal torment due to apostasy often hinges on your level of religious faith. With that in mind, consider Bill Nye’s answer at the end of the Creation vs Evolution debate about what would change his mind. A single piece of evidence (paraphrase). His opponents answer was “nothing.”

Please don’t think I’m saying that all believers hold faith “in the teeth of evidence” or that Ken was not right to do so. Perhaps he does have the proper belief or perhaps he would change his mind when the right pieces of evidence appear, but he just can’t imagine it yet. What matters is not whether faith in X or Y is warranted, or even whether idea Z is true or false. I’m asking you to consider which process of reasoning, on average, is more likely to yield more true beliefs and fewer false beliefs. Regardless of your answer, know that non-believers tend to think that the methodology of reasoning is different for religious faith than it is for science (yes, they conflict), and that religious faith is far less reliable. That is why they tend to define it differently and why it makes them uneasy to hear someone say they are using “faith.”


The word “faith” means so many things, many of them very polarizing, and there is almost a certainty that people with opposing theological beliefs are not going to accept the same interpretations. We all have flaws in our reasoning, naturally, from birth – especially me. No matter how much we try to overcome them through learning about them or studying logic, biases, meta-cognition, etc., none of us are completely immune to the hidden biases that creep in. For this reason alone, we should be cautious of the types of reasoning that make us certain about untestable claims. We should also be aware of when we think we’re testing claims against our experience but we’re really failing to take account of confirmation bias, or other biases for which we are often unaware until we learn about them and examine our beliefs against them.

Is faith good or bad? I may be largely a personality thing. Evidence seems to support the idea that some personality types (mainly “feelers”) tend to be more likely to land on the pro-religious-faith side than their opposites. I don’t know if that’s true, but the Myers-Briggs profile analyses seem to say so.

In some sense it depends on how important truth is to you. Faith feels wonderful. Oh how I miss it. But is the quality of evidence in religious faith sufficient to warrant the level of belief we hold in our religious tenets? Those who reason by faith usually say yes. Those who don’t tend to say no. Who’s right? As a general principle, my assessment is that religious faith is less trustworthy than scientific reasoning, so I trust it less. I do not completely distrust it but I’m a little more skeptical of it. I think this is good because wanting something to be true means we should be even more cautious of it, examining it even more, because our natural tendency is to do the opposite (another blind spot).

So Pascal, if we’re talking about how we reason as humans, I think we should focus on evidence-based reasoning over faith-based reasoning. I actually think that’s not the best way to consider the conflict. I still want there to be faith-based reasoning because the things that come to us through our faith are a kind of evidence. It’s all under the umbrella of human reasoning. We just need to subject our faith-based thoughts and intuitions through the same two filters that we subject every other kind of thought.

Filter 1: a list of all the biases and logical fallacies we’re subject too.

Filter 2: evidence-based testing (e.g. scientific method, testing, repeatability etc.).

We shouldn’t necessarily disbelieve it if it fails one of these filters, but the degree to which it passes both filters is the degree to which we should trust it, wherever it comes from (faith-based reasoning or elsewhere). This is where I support the “and” over the “instead.”

To me, “faith” is a red-flag warning of potential belief that exceeds what’s warranted by the evidence. I see faith as a potential multiplier that takes what we should believe based on evidence and boosts it some degree with confidence from what we want to be true. Evidence always informs faith, but faith has a tendency to go further than good, fallacy-filtered evidence warrants. If we hold up the white-flag of humility alongside the red-flag of hope (e.g. if we say, “I think and hope this but I don’t know”), then I’m much more okay with faith and evidence rather than limiting to just faith instead of evidence. Of course, you have this quality in spades. Go climb your mountain, you awesome dad. 🙂

Next week, let me know if we’re at an impasse with faith and where I made things more confusing or more clear. I know you already knew the vast majority of this, but I’m putting it down for posterity and the off chance it might help someone. Sorry you had to wade through it. Please forgive the typos. It is very late now.


Readers, did any of you make it this far? If you’re a non-believer are you uneasy when people say you “have faith in X?” If you’re a believer are did this post irritate you? Do you disagree? If so, I apologize. Want to add anything?

Gentleness and respect,

Do You Know Your Purpose? Is Your Personality Related to Your Beliefs about God?

Wow – recovery from a coma!

What a crazy week. Thank you, Pascal and friends, for your prayers. I added my own to the mix. I’m so glad J’s (CC’s) brother is doing better! The girls and I have been sad about my brother-in-law’s situation but we’ve been having a blast together, with many giggles while we await J’s return. In the meantime, I wanted post about something J and I discussed just before she found out her brother was in a coma and had to leave. But first…

Do you struggle to find fulfillment?

When I was a believer, I felt a deep sense of fulfillment and purpose in my time on Earth. I knew my future lay in designing software tools to help myself and others increase and live-out their faith. Since then I’ve been deeply interested in imagining myself at the end of life, looking back and taking stock of which things I’m glad I spent my time on vs other things that I wish I hadn’t. Life seems more real, precious, and fleeting now. That has as much to do with having children that I know will eventually suffer and die (likely without me by their side) and my recent focus on metacognition as it does on spiritual matters and a loss of confidence in eternity.

Time is a most precious resource and I desperately want to use it wisely (to find that minimal set of things which satisfies my soul’s purpose, or at least my mind’s estimate of such). In addition to time with my amazing wife and children, which is always well-spent, I’ve been in a deep struggle to find that right choice of career alignment – the optimal challenge and purpose that drives enthusiasm and productivity towards a noble cause – one that’s practical, within my skill-set, and in-line with interests. On the list are many things ranging from teaching STEM in high-school or college to going back for a PhD to further science in some small corner of one or more of the intersections of theoretical computer science, artificial intelligence, software simulation, genetics, math, biomechanical engineering, the philosophy of science, or some subspecialty of physics.

I’m certainly not claiming to possess the mental prowess to accomplish these goals or do them well, but I know my interests. I love learning for its own intrinsic value, and I’m not afraid of difficult challenges if they align with my goals and provide time and support for my family. Your goals will vary, but I wonder if you feel like your on the right track or if, like me, your looking for something more.

Do you know your personality type?

My work and family life, with J (CC) in medical school, doesn’t allow time for further education at the moment. However, I also have a list of things that require no further formal degrees yet seem very fulfilling. I’ve sifted through many and found very few that my future self might deem to have been more valuable than extra time with my children.

In my research I recently came across a test similar to one I’d taken about 15 years ago. It is a modified version of the Myers Briggs test – the old one was over 100 questions but this one was much shorter and took less than 5 minutes to complete. I took it because I wanted to see if the results could help me narrow in on some subset of my possible career or hobby deviations that would be more natural for my personality than others. After taking the test, the descriptions of my personality type were shocking in their accuracy. I recognize that confirmation bias plays a role here, but other personality types do not describe me as well. This isn’t astrology.

I did learn a few things to think about when considering my future goals. I actually have an idea of what to do next. Perhaps I’ll share that another time. Something at least as important came out of the test. I learned about my wife and she learned a little more about me. I’ve since ask her, Howie, Vance (aka Toad), and Vance’s spouse to take the test and I’ve learned quite a bit about them as well.

The main reason for this post is to learn more about you. One of the primary goals of the blog is to increase our understanding of ourselves, one another, and the universe (any deities included). The hope is that understanding will lead to compassion and love. Personality type tools are not perfect and some people don’t like being put into such a box. They can be useful though, and I think they’re worth a shot. Only you can determine if they’re accurate for you or not.

My wife and I have learned quite a bit about each other through reading the details about our types that relates to how we tend to handle our careers, relationships, friendships, parenting styles, and the overall strengths and weaknesses that accompany our personalities. Also, after reading about INTJ’s (my wife did not get this type) I now understand how some people can be strong atheists – something I had trouble accepting before. That personality type seems particularly capable of such reasoning.

Personality may be correlated with belief in a higher power

The other intriguing reason for this post is a question based on a pronouncement made by one of the sites that interprets the personality type results. It says my main personality type, INTP (read about it here or here), is:

one of the types least likely to believe in a higher spiritual power

I googled INTP’s (my main personality type) to see if many of them believed in a higher power. The main answers I saw were from Reddit threads, and I think these say more about the base-rate of the Reddit audience concerning religion than they do about the general population of INTPs and faith. However, very few INTP’s held a religious belief on those threads.

My wife, however, has a personality type that is:

most likely of all types to believe in a higher spiritual power

You can probably complete the test in less than 5 minutes by opening this link.

Once you’re done, check out what your results means by clicking here and here, and then please drop back by and comment. We’d all benefit from learning more about each other. I’m specifically curious about the following:

  1. What type did you get and do you feel the descriptions in the links above are fairly accurate for you?
  2. Do you believe in a higher power? Some descriptions discuss this and I’m interested to see if there is a general correlation between personality and faith in the readers of our blog.

I’ll go first.

  1. INTP (with INFP as a close second) – yes, they seem accurate, especially INTP.
  2. INTP says I’m among those least likely to believe in a higher spiritual power. I don’t hold a positive belief in a higher power but I’m still drawn to the idea and searching for one.

This goes for you, too, Pascal! I can’t wait to learn more about you my friend! 🙂

Gentleness and respect,

Trusting the Bible – Ex-nihilo, The 10 Commandments, And The Tapestry

Greetings, my friends!

Pascal, I just read your Counting Threads post and I wanted to respond as soon as possible. I actually wanted to write something last night to smooth things over a bit after my last post and our difficult breakfast conversation, but I fell asleep. We went to the early service at your church today. I want to reassure you of our friendship despite the tough spot where we ended breakfast the other morning, and my rather direct questions in my last post. I don’t want to push you into a corner or make you feel pressure. Seriously. I know that I did that without thinking about it and I’ll probably do it again. I apologize. Your beliefs are valid for you, and I’m very glad that you care enough to express your reasons to those who disagree.

I also want to apologize for working so hard to keep my last post, Is The Bible Trustworthy?, under 3000 words that I didn’t go back and add the soft touches that I normally try to add. As I mentioned at breakfast, I usually write the facts first, and then go back and fill in my emotions about those facts. Writing is a very dangerous medium for communicating about such closely-held, heartfelt worldviews, especially for me, because I often forget to communicate my heart effectively. You can judge how quickly I rushed through a post by two things. The typos, and how soft the direct statements feel. If I made it sound like an interrogation, that means I didn’t go back through to turn my computer voice into my human voice. I think that sometimes has an impact on how my writing is perceived. I’ll work on it, and I’ll try to use more emoticons, as P3 wisely pointed out. 🙂

I’m not going to try to restrain the length of this post. Honestly, it’s not that I can’t be concise. I actually specialize in concise, simple phrases for marketing and content at work. It’s just not my goal here. This is an online record, and here’s to hoping my posterity has a super-computer to parse the relevant info directly into their brain whenever they want it. I know that you presently lack this computer, and for that, I also apologize. 🙂

Okay, so where are we? I’m sorry that I pressed you and I apologize if I said something that made you feel that your position was misrepresented in some way. That happens often in such dialogues and I want to at least try to avoid it. I can tell you make an effort to do so with me. I understand your anger over our last two communications, even if I don’t share it. I readily admit to feeling a bit challenged at breakfast – and feeling like I needed to take time to clarify my position. Your latest post seems to confirm that. So, here we go.

Are the 10 Commandments the best moral system?

I think our issues at breakfast started when you made a statement, or perhaps asked a question about the 10 commandments. I don’t want to misrepresent you, and science shows us that my memory of the conversation cannot be fully relied upon since it’s been a few days. I will refrain from saying what you said and instead state what I think I heard. I believe the gist of the challenge was that you believed the 10 commandments were the best moral guide and do I agree? Please clarify if that’s not what you meant. I responded in person with three things that make it difficult for me to accept that the 10 commandments are the best moral guide. I actually started by saying that I think there are better ones but then I backed up from that because it depends on what we mean. We started by agreeing that the first 3 (I said maybe the first 4) are not very relevant to the skeptic, but the last 6 are. Here are the three things I mentioned (as I recall them) in no particular order about the 10:

  • It’s not just 10. There are something like 613 commandments (I read that somewhere, I didn’t count them all, haha) and it is not clear to me that the other 603 were significantly less important.
  • The other 613 commandments include many things that are not moral.
  • The 10 commandments that we traditionally think of are not the only set of 10 commandments listed in the Bible.

When you pulled out the Bible and asked where this second set was and I couldn’t remember the verse, I can see why you’d question my understanding of the Bible. I said the last commandment in the section was something like, “You shall not boil a baby goat in it’s mother’s milk.” Yes, I do know about sanitary laws in the Old Testament and I understand the reasons for many of them. I’m not offended by your response that I don’t understand scripture because my comment made it sound like it wasn’t taught to me well. That’s a very fair question. You asked me several times at breakfast, “Russell, who taught you the Bible?” Your question is a good one and it deserves an answer.

Who taught me the Bible

I grew up hearing storybook lessons on cassette tape and hearing sermons and Bible lessons from my grandfather, the evangelist with a Bible degree. I also went to church with my parents until about age 7 or so. My father, the missionary and pastor with a Bible degree, taught me some as a child, then my mother. I listened to and read the Bible growing up and attending many different churches and Bible studies from ages 16-24. I took 5 Bible courses in college including focused studies from Seminary accredited teachers in Old Testament Studies and prophecies, Minor Prophet studies, New Testament, Studies on the life and teachings of Paul, and on Romans. I taught Bible studies and read popular books about the Bible. I had commentaries, learned some Hebrew, and built tools to help people memorize Bible verses. I studied the Bible daily and read it through multiple times (Old and New Testament). I referenced the Strong’s Concordance very regularly. I memorized over 300 verses and passages, some of them long. I prayed for people regularly with them, lead people to faith along the Roman road, and read apologetics books to learn to defend and share my faith in a secular world. My bible was heavily highlighted and circled.

Who taught me? Many people. My experiences ranged from the fundamentalist, Young Earth Creationists, to the liberal arm of many different denominations. My Christian route went from Pentecostal, to Baptist, to Catholic, to Non-denominational, to Church of Christ, to Episcopalian, to Methodist, back to Baptist, to Church of Christ, to Lutheran, to Presbyterian, to non-denominational again, and finally again to Baptist. Along the way I had studies of comparative religions, and delved into other non-Christian schools of thought for a time in high-school, including shintoism, taoism, buddhism (mainly Zen) and others. In my 20’s I spent a decent amount of time studying Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, traditional Judaism, Hinduism and Islam to understand where our beliefs differ so I could communicate with them.

I studied the Bible and wrote in journals and read books on journaling and how to study the Bible. I experienced many different methods (slow, deep exegesis and quick daily messages). Each led to reflection, self-evaluation, change, and magnification, and worship. I taught the Bible so I could learn it better. I led as many Church of Christ ministries as Baptist ones. When I accepted the role as president of the Baptist Student Ministry at my college I actually had my eyes set on seminary after a few years because I wanted to learn as much about God’s love letter as I could in this short life. Since my college didn’t offer any more than 5 Bible classes total, I actually dropped out of my major and left school to dedicate more time in Bible study and local mission work (planning to come back to school in a few years to aim for seminary). That’s why I graduated so much later in life. It may sound like a crazy idea to you now, but college degrees just didn’t matter much to my family at the time and the Bible and its message were of ultimate, eternal importance.

So, who taught me the Bible? Like most people, it’s many “who’s.” I learned from many people. Do I think I understand the Bible any better than you or any Bible scholar or self-taught student of the Bible? Absolutely not. Do I admit of my own blindspots? Yes! Definitely. In fact, I know I have the wrong interpretation in many areas, I just don’t know which ones they are. I know I was taught wrong and still hold a many incorrect interpretations, so I’m definitely not claiming superiority here. It’s also been over eight years since I’ve read it all the way through. I fear overcommitting to the wrong view, which is why I’m generally a skeptic and an agnostic. I know enough to know how little our best scholars know compared to the working-class people at the time that these events took place. I would never say that I understand the Bible correctly. We all seek for a coherent concept of God based on our interpretations of the verses. We wiggle things around in our minds until they fit. Even now, I feel that I’m learning. I’m just doing it in a different way than you are. A way that is comfortable and natural for me. 🙂

For years now I’ve felt I read it differently than my believing friends. It’s not that I don’t see the bigger picture, or the tapestry as you put it. It’s just that I also see problems. Contradictions or conflicts jump out at me so very easily. I’m not looking for them. I just can read far without noticing them. A friend may read the flood account and notice something new about God’s providence. I notice that some animals came 2 by 2, and others came 14 by 14, depending on whether they were clean or not. I just read things the way my mind is wired and the way I’m taught in my field. I can’t turn that off. You say the Bible understands you. I remember what that feels like. But that was before I was cursed? with reading it objectively. When I tried to make my faith stand up to reason, my personal attempt failed. Yours may fair better. The faith of many others has.

Am I just rejecting fundamentalism?

As you can read in Not an outsider, I experienced life through the filter of the Bible. My views were sometimes firm, but they were often held loosely depending on the topic and how close I felt it was to the core message of Christianity. I can understand how one would want to assume that if someone is rejecting their faith, they’re really rejecting the extreme versions of the faith that should be rejected. I do not think that is the case for me, though I do of course admit that I could be wrong. It’s really not that I’m rebelling against a 6000 Year Old Earth. That is not the whole of my cognitive dissonance. There is so much more that is claimed by the Bible that must be accepted, even in the liberal interpretations that I was familiar with. I’m not just rejecting the extreme versions of Christianity. I’m rejecting all of them that I’ve heard and can make sense of. Some of the more moderate/liberal/progressive interpretations are definitely compatible with science and help me maintain cognitive resonance, but they also leave me unable to trust the Bible enough to believe the core claims – which is why we’re in this apparent circle.

I started with belief in fundamentalism or conservatism. But as I grew and my reasoning matured, I held some of those views as less relevant to the core faith and left them as an open question. I actually haven’t read anything from N.T. Wright in Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today or in Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues that I didn’t agree with at some point in my faith journey. When even the more moderate claims seemed unlikely, I felt myself slipping down a slope that had no ledge to grasp. Now I’m at the bottom of the abyss staring up at a ledge of confidence far above and no obvious way to scale the torn web of what I used to think were valid arguments for belief. You may have given up a few paces, maybe not. It’s still unclear to me. I hope you find your footing. As much as I’d like company, I’d much prefer you safe and confident in your worldview, your answers about eternity, your support system for grief, and your reasons for denying yourself for the sake of others.

Am I just rejecting some other false doctrine?

I’d like to answer what I think is behind your question, am I rejecting the Bible as it was meant to be understood, or am I rejecting some false version that should be rejected? Might it really be that I just lack the proper understanding what the authors meant? To this I say, absolutely. That’s why I’m blogging. That’s why I’m still engaged in Christianity, still go to church, and blog things like Calling All Christians – Help An Atheist Believe. It’s why I opened my last post (Is The Bible Trustworthy?) with the idea that my goal is not challenging you, but finding a way to get to where you are. I need the understanding and the proper reasoning to get there. I hope my interpretation of the Bible is wrong and that I can find a coherent version of a God that I can believe is likely to exist. I don’t want to lead my family astray. I want to be the spiritual leader they need. With that said, the problem I mentioned in Inerrancy? is that we can’t know the author(s)’ intents. Nobody should have great confidence that they have it right in all cases, or that they ever truly properly understand the Bible. I suspect you agree. I’m just looking for a version that is coherent. If you know of one, please show it to me. I think that’s where our friendship is headed. Maybe not to finding such a version, but to exploring options to see if there is a place where we can both comfortably land.

Back to the 10 commandments

So, what about my statement about the things that didn’t sit well with me regarding the perfection of the 10 commandments, specifically the statement about there being two different places where the 10 commandments were mentioned (and they weren’t the same commandments)? Again, I completely get why this made you feel attacked in some way, and like I must not understand scripture. I was calling into question a book that you love and that hurts. I don’t want to hurt you. I do want to avoid what I did for the first several months of our friendship, which was holding in my honest thoughts to the point that you had little idea what I actually struggled with. If I can be honest, my friend, I think that the future will hold much more of this. We’ll need to decide in many situations if we place more value on honesty or peace, and I know you said you yearn for the struggle. I suspect that I will be bringing up answers to your questions about my doubts that will challenge the way you see scripture. As long as you can expect that and try to be prepared for it, I think it will help you not feel attacked personally. Remember that I validate your beliefs, I just don’t hold them myself. I want to be able to share why that is.

You’ll recall from my text I sent just after breakfast that the verses I was referring to but couldn’t remember were here in Exodus 34.

This tells that God will actually write on the stones this time. You can compare the story (the second writing of the 10 commandments on the tablets, this time being written by God rather than by Moses) to that told in Deuteronomy 10 which leaves out the actual commandments. Deuteronomy 5 is another version of Exodus 20. In the Exodus account the verses are followed with many other laws that must be obeyed. The writers in the Exodus 34 version say that God calls it a covenant in that version, which doesn’t explicitly happen right around those verses in the commonly accepted Deuteronomy 5 version or in the Exodus 20 version. Some of the same verses are included (don’t worship another God, don’t make idols, don’t work on the seventh day, etc.), but others also make it in that don’t seem all that relevant for modern morality. Edit: I edited the rest of this paragraph a bit to clear up some poor wording and clarify my interpretation. I knew the passage well enough to know that there’s significant wiggle room. It could have been (and very likely was, given what’s said about the event in Deuteronomy 10) talking about the words which were to follow (which aren’t recorded in the story), but the wording was a little confusing. That’s basically all I meant. As an example, the chapter has God introducing the words as the “covenant,” giving some commandments in verses spread about in 12-26 (some of which were in the original 10 commandments), asking Moses to write “these words,” and then affirming the covenant with “these words” – implying the words that were just spoken. There are more than 10 rules there, but they could be combined easily enough. At a surface reading, the laws given right there could easily be interpreted to be 10 commandments, though we both agree they aren’t. Taken in full context with the other tellings, it’s clear there are only one set of 10 commandments. I think I was wrong to suggest they might be. I do think that the whole thing odd, especially since only Moses and God (who describes himself in an unusual way) were present. And, if I understand your position, neither of us are convinced that Moses existed. Is Exodus 34 a point to get hung up on or a reason to doubt the Bible? Not at all. I just thought it worth bringing up when discussing the divinity of the perfect ethical system I thought you were proposing. In retrospect, it wasn’t. The goodness of any set of rules will stand or fall on its own. 🙂

So why did I mention the Exodus 34 version (I couldn’t remember the verses) at breakfast? It was all off the top of my head in response to why I doubt the divinity of the 10 commandments. I don’t spend time thinking about this stuff, but I have a sense of some things that cause me, as a skeptic, to doubt the Bible. From that point in the conversation I felt like things derailed a bit because the focus was on who taught me the Bible wrong.

The issue with the law of the covenant is a bit dubious to me. The way the story is told does not support the hypothesis that this religion in question is reporting the truth – but rather that they are trying to justify their laws using a divine authority. That’s my personal assessment and I hope it doesn’t upset you. I as myself why God would change the commandments (or make it seem as if they’d been changed) between those two passages? Do the differing versions support the hypothesis that it is divine? If we didn’t already believe in Christianity (pretend it was another religion we were being introduced to) would there be any obvious way to distinguish the 10 commandments and subsequent laws, as far as divinity is concerned, from the many other societal laws such as the Code of Hammurabi and the Egyptian 42 Commandments called the MA’AT – Right and Truth, (see my post called Who Was Right for a refresher)? In each of these other cases we would probably put the weight of evidence on the side of the laws not being divine. In other words, it would seem more likely that the rulers were either, mistaken or intentionally using divine authority to give weight to the laws. And those laws seem to have predated the Jewish ones. There are many more laws for other cultures developed since then that also claim divine inspiration. Even some modern constitutions do. I need to know what sets the Jewish laws apart in such a way that the weight of evidence is actually on it being divinely inspired, especially if we don’t know who wrote the books and can’t find much of the evidence that we’d expect to find if the claims were true?

Moving on. We can discuss this more later (J just cut out 1000 words of this). 🙂

Great verse!

Isn’t it better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt?

Haha. Yes. When I read this I immediately thought, Proverbs 17:28. It was one of my memorized verses, along with the verse before. Here they are together in NIV (the version I grew up with).

The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered

Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.

I spent many many hours praying for wisdom, patience, humility, the fruits of the spirit and an even-temper. Perhaps it has shaped me and perhaps it’s my nature, but I managed to end up with the last one, at least. 🙂

The 10 commandments – a good place to start or the Best set of ethics?

We talked about ways to live and why I thought the ten commandments provided a good start, acknowledging that the anchor of authority was the Hebrew God.

Ah. See, I think I misunderstood you at breakfast. What I thought I heard you say was the the 10 commandments were more than just a good place to start, but were the best set of ethics. That’s why I felt the need to provide an explanation for why I doubted their divinity and ultimate superiority to some other systems. If you just meant to say they’re a good place to start when evaluating how to live, I’m fine with that. 🙂

You said there were two incompatible versions of the ten commandments.  I blanched.

What I meant to say (and what I remembered saying, but I could definitely be mistaken) was that there seems to be more than one set of verses that appear to be the 10 commandments, and that casts doubt on the ultimate superiority of the rest of the laws which are already in question (including the main 10 and the rest of the Bible – it’s all on the same foundation).

Russell, who taught you the Bible?!?!

I asked who had taught you how to study the Bible.  I truthfully admitted that I had not been taught and suggested that the same might be true for you.  And then we left.

Haha. Yes. I do remember hearing, “Russell, who taught you the Bible?!?!???!” a few times after I mentioned the second set of the 10 commandments. 🙂 At the end you did suggest that you might be projecting. I answered this above, so we’ll leave it at that. 🙂

N.T. Wright – Simultaneously a fan and Not a fan

You quoted him again in your last post and he’s come up in a few others. I’m partway through Wright’s book called Surprised by Scripture, which you just finished. Immediately after you recommended him I read his book called Scripture and the Authority of God (hoping to find a way to justify trust in the Bible). I did not. I’m finding the first few chapters of Surprised to be very full of logical problems. I respect Wright very much. His writing, intellect, faith, and calling are all high-quality. I want him to be right (giggle). Right now, I can’t find the justification I’m looking for in his reasoning. I think he is right to believe as he does, just as I think you are, but his reasons, unfortunately (at least so far), are unconvincing to me. Despite his scholarship and renown, he seems to be somewhat (and by self-proclamation) unexercised in formal science and doesn’t appear to have a firm grasp on many of the subtler logical fallacies that plague us and our first century counterparts. I’ll save this for another time, but I appreciate you pointing me to him.

Scratching the surface of biblical doubt…

The second chapter is titled, “Do We Need a Historical Adam?”  From the faith perspective that I grew up in, even the question is disrespectful.  To doubt a literal Genesis and a young earth was to doubt Jesus, the resurrection and everything else precious.

This is part of the dichotomy that I now see as false.  If Genesis is not literal, can scripture still be inerrant, infallible, God-breathed (inspired) and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness?

I think we’re getting to it now. 🙂 This is exactly where I and many of our readers are. But it’s much more than your statement is pointing to. It’s not about Genesis, and specifically not about YEC. Bringing up YEC is effectively pointing to a strong position that many don’t support. What you seem to be saying, and please correct me if I’m wrong, is that not only is it not “literal” in the traditional since, it’s metaphorical to the extent that Adam and Eve did not exist as the first humans. That leaves a lot of room for questions to creep in. Many of us have found that once you get there, those issues are just the beginning. You doubt that a man named Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. You haven’t responded to my and CC’s questions yet, or Howie’s follow-up comment, but you may doubt that at least some laws and conquests recorded in the Old Testament were actually commanded by God. These are just the tip of the iceberg.

I would never say that inerrancy vs non-divine is a true dichotomy. God can make a book that errs. I completely agree that the Bible could still be true, inspired, and some version of the God we read about it in it could exist. I just can’t muster confidence in such a God if significant and foundational Bible claims are false.

Does wisdom provide compelling evidence of divinity?

1)  The scripture was useful to me in recognizing, but not acting upon my anger in sin.  I was able to find solace in 1 Corinthians 13, reminding me that love is patient and kind.  If I dwelled in anger, that would work against the call to love.

2)  The scripture was useful to me in correcting my errant path.  I turned back (repented).

3)  The scripture was useful to me for training in righteousness.  Training implies a perpetual preparation.  I am hopeful that I’ll become more like Christ with age, maturity, and constant use.  Scripture will be my measure.

I completely agree with this. You are extremely Christ-like and easy to love. However, I found that scripture being useful does not demonstrate that it is divine or infallible in its entirety. I don’t think anyone is saying that none of it is useful to us in the ways you’re mentioning, but nothing in your response makes Biblical claims stand out from the claims of any other religious text regarding how they shape the way we live. Not that saying this diminishes your character or my appreciation of you by one iota.

You are braver than I

4)  I don’t believe in a literal Adam or a six day creation.  That is not surprising for my skeptical colleagues, but what about for the loved sisters and brothers with whom I’m about to fellowship?  It would be very surprising, perhaps threatening, for some.  Like our Taco Tuesday, it could provoke anger.  I should be careful.

I admire and respect you so very much for this.

Metaphorical language

5)  I think in metaphorical language.  If Genesis is the story of transition from prehominid woman to humans in recorded civilization then what value does it have?  Is there still a creation?  Yes.  Is there still a creator?  Yes.  Does the creator communicate with his creations?  Yes.  Can these creations worship themselves as in Romans 1?  Yes.  Is there a Problem deeper than a generalized misunderstanding of logical fallacy?  Yes.  Much deeper.

I think the issue I have with this interpretation is that it casts doubt on the narrative. Not that it disproves it. It makes it less likely for various reasons we can go into later (many of them are referenced in the other 42 reasons I listed in Why I Am Not A Christian). I’ll leave aside what you might mean by “creations worshiping themselves” once again. I touched on this before but I don’t think I heard an acknowledgement or response from you. I probably buried it in a long post. Essentially, I think Paul is redefining worship to mean something other than what we express to deities, so it feels like a caricature. I, as I hope you know by now, completely agree that there is a Problem deeper than a generalized misunderstanding of logical fallacy. I’m not sure we’ve connected here yet, despite our multiple conversations about it. This comment seems to imply that you think I’m saying logical fallacies are the root problem of nature. I’m still a little doubtful that I’ve successfully communicated my position with the problem I mentioned. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Let’s talk Multiverse! Now I’m happy! 🙂

6)  You know that I love studying science and even practice it in an applied manner.  The m-verse doesn’t solve a problem for me. The m-verse doesn’t expand the denominator of time to infinity where anything can happen.

Yes. You know science well, my friend. I would never question that. You even sat through a few of Sean Carroll’s videos, posts and books. I’ve loved accompanying you on the journey. I’m still one audio course behind and have about thirty related videos and blog posts to share with you at some point. 🙂

As for the multiverse, I’m not sure which multiverse theory you’re referring to. We both know there are several categories of Multiverse theories. I don’t think any of them require the universe to be ultimately discrete. In other words, the quantum math works within the framework we set upon it based on observations and theory. The universe can definitely be continuous (ultimately infinite) despite our inability to measure below the plank-length. Based on what I understand right now, I don’t think anyone can assert that we don’t have (or can’t imagine) plausible hypotheses that expand the denominator of time to infinity where anything can happen. I’ll try to find some for you if you like. 🙂

The m-verse can not redefine nothing.

There is an assumption that we have the correct definition of nothing. From my readings and lectures on infinity and nothing, the concept (like most concepts) is profound and much more nuanced and complicated than we imagine. The truth is, we simply have no frame of reference for it. What is the default state of nature? That is the question. We cannot assert it is the absence of all possible relationships, states, fluctuations, etc. We just don’t know that.

Quantum fluctuation is not nothing.

Actually, it’s as close to nothing as we know to exist and it might actually be the empty set of all possible states that could possibly exist. I’m not claiming one way or another. Anyone who is, is doing so to fulfill a need to support their world-view. Nothing can’t even be described except for the absence of all things. Virtual particles in a quantum foam don’t exist, they just have potential. I’m not arguing that this is the ultimate nothing. Far from it. I’m just saying that we can’t say otherwise with any authority. This may not satisfy our philosophical rhetoric about nothing that we’ve been taught, be we have no reason to think such a nothing is possible in the default state of some ultimate reality, much less what the rules might be that would govern such a state, or if our paradigm of rules and sequences even makes sense in that reality.

Also, on this point, here’s another thing that isn’t nothing. A God; a supernatural environment that this God exists in; etc. A being is not nothing so the argument is vacuous in my assessment. What is more likely? A random fluctuation that led to our universe, or a complex, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent being with a will and desire to create a universe for us? With this question, we cannot make an assertion that is backed up by evidence, but Occam’s Razor supports the former (not that I have complete confidence in Occam’s Razor applied to logic outside our universe, or even some places inside of it). If something must be eternal, there’s not a compelling reason to think that thing must be a complex mind rather than a default state of existence that has the potential to be in some kind of fluctuation (enter the quantum foam as one possible state of this that we can observe).

I find it intellectually coherent to say that our observable universe began with low entropy because God created it with order.

Low entropy is not order. Low entropy is disorder. If it had zero entropy it would be order. It also would never evolve. It needed some disorder built into the system to form what we see today. As far back as we look, we see or infer entropy. There are both order and disorder in the universe now, just as there were both as far back as we look. This doesn’t conflict with the concept of a God; nor does it support or require a God of Order to explain it – at least to me. 🙂 (This sentence was a train wreck that J fixed with a semicolon. Grammar genius) (She added that part).

I still find it compelling that a beginning begs a beginner.

I agree that it is compelling, which, as you know, is one reason I’m on the fence about the existence of something we might consider a God or prior mind (should I mention it now? Why not… iMultiverse :)). However, if we take this further and say that a beginning demands a beginner, we’re committing the composition fallacy. That’s the false notion that you can apply to the whole of a system what is required by parts of that system. It may be the case, we can’t know one way or the other and we have no universes we can definitively compare ours with.

Ex nihilo nihil fit

First, our universe may yet be flat. The world of cosmology is ever-changing on these topics and I’m doing my best to keep up with the multiple hypotheses. A zero state universe would not violate Ex nihilo nihil fit. Second, neither God, nor the description of the Universe in Genesis 1 represents the philosophical nothing that many assume must have existed (something we can’t really fathom). Third, nothing comes from nothing is not very relevant for convincing me to Christianity for two reasons.

  1. A creation event doesn’t directly and exclusively promote the Biblical claims; it could be any kind of previous state (another God, the God described in some version of the Bible, a multiverse, a simulation, and on and on we could go).
  2. Nothing comes from nothing is honestly irrelevant to me as a philosophy for demonstrating the truth of a God-claim because we don’t need a good understanding of the ultimate first cause. All we need is an explanation for the cause immediately prior to our state of the universe. You know I’m going to point to iMultiverse here, too. 🙂

So, I’m not challenging your belief here. I think you are right to find it compelling that a beginning begs a beginner if that works for you. I’m just saying that it isn’t compelling to me and want you to have a little hint about why that is. If someone believes, they can use Ex nihilo nihil fit to promote their existing belief. If not, it often doesn’t help get someone to belief, although I’m sure there are exceptions. I could be a deist. 🙂

The untruth behind myth, or when trust becomes unobtainable

7)  So my view of scripture has changed.  It no longer bothers me to consider that the creation story in Genesis was a myth (story to teach truth:  not a fiction).

Okay. This is where we differ. The first definition I find for myth in Google is, “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” The second is, “a widely held but false belief or idea.” In neither case is the story likely to be true. Useful, perhaps, but useful for what? Eliciting a cultural behavior of some kind, usually. I actually loved Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. It was fascinating and really resonated with me. I’ve long believed in a transcendent that is similar to how he describes it in the book and there is a sort of truth there. However, I didn’t feel that the stories were true beyond the meaning they had for the people. With the Bible and our conversation now, we’re talking about justifying belief in an ultimate reality. That is an issue wholly separate from the meaning we might get from such a belief. It may resonate within us, but it may be no more real than any of the beliefs in the Power of Myth.

If someone tells us a story as if it happened, but the events behind that story did not actually happen, the story they told us was, in fact, a lie, or perhaps a misunderstanding – but not a truth. They were untrustworthy about their story and their future trust is in question. There may be truth in the metaphor, but it should be clear that it is a metaphor. If some of the Bible authors weren’t who it lead us to believe they were and if some of events they claimed occurred didn’t actually happen, how can you and I be confident in which ones are right? How can we gain enough confidence to believe the supernatural claims that, without the assumption of divine authority, are more likely to have been mistaken, made up, etc.?

Did God supernaturally intervene to create Eve from Adams ribs? Sounds like that was probably a metaphor. Did God supernaturally flood the world to kill everyone except Noah and those on the Ark? Was it metaphor? Did God supernaturally harden Pharaoh’s heart and send plagues on Egypt? Metaphor? Did the Exodus happen? Metaphor for the small band that left captivity and want to shape their history and consolidate their wisdom and community through story? Were the laws and commandments supernaturally given by God to Moses on a Mountain? Metaphor? Were the killings commanded by God? How much scripture is better interpreted as a metaphor, or something that is important for story but didn’t actually happen, and what impact does it have? Where does it end? What can we trust?

You’re Wright quote from Surprised by Scripture was good, but didn’t include the answer. His answer seems to be that we can’t know, so we should just trust. Asking too many questions and looking too closely at the tapestry may reveal the work of an unskilled artist who learned as the ages passed, but couldn’t start over afresh. What should we trust if we weren’t brought up in the religion but instead evaluated it now as people who are new to these claims from another religion? These are what I ask myself. I cannot trust. Perhaps I could if it weren’t for the other 42 random but mostly independent reasons I’ve listed in Why I’m Not A Christian. But I can’t make those go away either.

Missing the threads for the tapestry (like missing the trees for the forest)?

You quoted me saying “N.T. Wright seems to be saying that if we start discussing why the Bible can be trusted, we’re missing the point of scripture. That is not a satisfactory answer. We must each make up our mind. Is the Bible without error, or might it have some error (in the intent of the original writings)? We must acknowledge the problems listed in the Inerrancy? post. It is not a distracting topic that misses the point. It is the foundation of trust for the whole Bible.”

I disagree with you.  I’m not angry and I don’t plan to revisit that place often.

Okay. That’s fair. But that’s my key issue. If I can’t trust the Bible, I can’t believe what it says about Jesus. That’s it. I’ve explained why. I’m not upset at all. I just want to be clear where that leaves me. I need an answer for the Inerrancy? post and related issues.

I feel that you have been counting threads and missing the tapestry.

If someone came to you and said this tapestry they loved was directed by God, would you look at it closely? If you saw perfection, it may validate the perfection of the one that created it. If not, it doesn’t mean there’s no way that the creator was perfect, but it also does not give evidence to validate the claim that its creator was perfect. Please don’t misunderstand. Again, I do not believe I have missed the tapestry. I’ve been staring at this tapestry for years at many different levels. I can see why you think I’ve missed it since I see it differently than you, and it’s certainly possible that I have. But I agree that we disagree here. It sounds like you still think I’m reading the Bible wrong because I wasn’t taught how to read it. Maybe. Show me what it’s supposed to look like that I haven’t seen.

In the scientific method, the question matters.

Well said. 🙂 What, in your opinion, are the right questions that Buddhism missed? I want to make sure I’m asking the right questions as well.

Why hold that the Bible is trustworthy?

You quoted me saying: “If you believe the Bible is without error in any sense (the meaning or letter of the original authors’ intentions, etc.), do you have a reason that doesn’t depend on the Bible’s claims about itself?”

My non-biblical reason is pragmatic.  With scripture I have the tools to criticize my own heart, to overcome my own biases and to change.  I have the tools to turn (repent) when I’m wrong and the instruction to pursue humility and patience – – difficult character traits.

I want you to know that I deeply respect and identify with your answer. However, I also want you understand that, to me, it doesn’t answer why you think the Bible is without error. It can be meaningful and cause self-evaluation and a heart-change without being wholly true or divine. So I’m not connecting the dots. If you’re willing, please take the time to explain how this answers the question, or rephrase it in a way that might be better for me. The question is driving at how we can trust the Bible so much that we take its word in supernatural claims. It’s not about whether the Bible has some use in how we see the world or govern our ethics. All religious beliefs provide that and we don’t think they’re all divine.

Another possible misinterpretation of The Problem?

You also quoted me saying, “How certain are you in your belief and can you justify your level of certainty in the face of The Problem and what other believers say about their sacred texts?”

I don’t elevate the problem you reference above to The Problem.  On that we fundamentally disagree.

I’m not sure how you interpreted this, so I can’t confirm that there’s a disagreement here. I want you to know, as I tried to explain in Small Bites (response) and Clarifying “The Problem”, that what I’m talking about isn’t the root of all evil. Human’s are perfectly capable of evil regardless of their worldview or meta-cognition. We both knew this before we read The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology and The Lessons of History. I only capitalize The Problem because it’s a blog post title, not because it’s the only problem plaguing us. 🙂

I just think our logical fallacies and cognitive biases (especially those I highlighted in The Problem) are so deceptive, pervasive, and hidden that it’s worth highlighting whenever possible. If we’re not walking around continually aware of them, we’re subject to them without knowing it and we’re digging our own grave in terms of objectively justifiable (and more likely true) beliefs. I actually suspect we are in complete agreement about the problem I mentioned. It seems that you (due to your faith) just posit an additional problem that I (due to my skepticism) think is unwarranted and unnecessary to explain things. I mean that in the most general and nicest and possible way.

We know for certain, as well as we can know anything, that the problem of hidden, unintuitive logical and cognitive biases dealing with perception I’m referencing exists. Christianity adds to that by declaring there is an additional problem of fallenness and a curse from God due to the sin of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve who we think might have been a myth. I think that problem may exist, but I would need a compelling reason to believe that it does exist. The forces of natural selection and our resulting hidden fallacies (bread for survival and reproduction rather than truth) are sufficient to explain our nature without requiring a curse from God. We both agree that the problem I’m referring to exists, right? And the biblical fall might exist. I could be wrong and I don’t want to speak for you, but I think you’d agree with those two statements. In any case, I think you’re trying to apply The Problem to more than I’m trying to apply it to. Does that make sense?

As our favorite historian says, “Every vice was once a virtue.” Our evolution bread us for self-preservation. The Moral Animal taught us about familial circles and the genetic drive to favor preserve and protecting those with a larger Hamiltonian R value (more closely related). Couple those qualities with those hidden fallacies (and motivated reasoning) and you have all the ingredients necessary for man-made woes. That doesn’t mean there aren’t more, but I’m not personal drawn to the conclusion that a supernatural curse and a fall from a state of perfection (a state that doesn’t look like ever existed) is necessary to explain our nature. Unless you’re only running off of photosynthesis, historical records show you were eating, evolving, adapting, competing, and killing to survive all the way back to single-celled life – much earlier than the hominids that would have received the curse and subsequent “fall.” The natural explanation makes more sense to me.

Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills is still the book I think is most essential for understanding me and is most descriptive of what I mean by the problem. Chapter 12 is a great 30 minute review if you ever want a refresher. 🙂

How to muster confidence that supernatural Bible claims are true?

You quoted me saying, “If you believe the Bible has errors, how do you have confidence in which parts are true? Why trust it in claims regarding the supernatural?”

If I believe God created, and have no dissonance in accepting mechanisms of a bang, abiogenesis, and evolution writ large, then cognitive resonance and coherence results.

Hey! I have no dissonance there either! Yay! 🙂 If we could stop there at deism I would be whole. I can’t quite make it there, though, and the world pushes us further – towards a specific God-claim. To claims like the set of those made in the Bible, which lead to many problems. I guess you know I’m going to say that your response doesn’t seem to explain how to have confidence about which parts to believe. You seem to believe (please correct me if I’m misinterpreting) that God created and communicated his Word in the Bible, but much of the Bible may not mean what it appears to say (either through the corruption of man, carelessness, misinterpretations of God’s will, or other methods, errors may have slipped in). Some major themes are written normally but science has forced us to believe they are allegorical. How can I know which parts to trust, and how can I justify trusting in any of the supernatural claims (resurrection, etc.)?

Hey! Just over 8000 words! I. Am. So. Sorry. I’ll give an air hug to anyone who actually reads all this. 🙂

I hope this post didn’t upset you too much, other than the length, of course. I’m very much looking forward to time together. See you at DĂ©tente!

Gentleness and respect,

Love Letter – – penultimate


The P in PICU stands for psychiatric.  The ICU means the same as it would elsewhere.  At SASH it is a place for high risk suicidal patients or violent psychotics.  I represented the latter.  Love Letter – – part 13   from the beginning

How could a 16 year old hold his own with violent crazy people?  He was one of them.  The only time that I’ve ever been hit in the face with a closed fist happened on my first night there.  I think I deserved it.  I was about to throw a heavy chair onto a large Mexican man.  I was convinced that he had looked at me in a sinister way.  Despite delusion I was probably right, but the chair made sense at the time.  He never really bothered me after that.  That episode prompted the first of many physical and chemical restraints to control my violence – – protect others, protect me.  The rooms aren’t really rubber, but the walls were padded.  Over two years I would see five different versions.  Three had green walls.  The color of calm?  That night and many after I screamed with demonic rage.  It may have scared others.  I had lost fear’s protection.  I had abruptly arrived at the bottom of my pit after free fall and a concussive landing – – much like the man with the turban after his encounter with a train.

Could I elaborate?  Yes.  But it hurts.  I’m crying now and it oddly surprises me.  I’m not crying in sorrow, regret, joy or beauty.  I actually think it is the Holy Spirit communicating with God in a way that I can’t understand.  Grieving for me, with me.  That is how I’ve been praying for you since the beginning.  I no longer speak in tongues.  I hope that doesn’t displease God.  I don’t think it does because I love his Holy Spirit and understand him much deeper that I ever did when speaking in tongues.  So that is how I pray for you and your family now.  This part of the letter follows your unspoken request.  I’ve been faithful.  Will I elaborate in the future?  I don’t know.  But in a fragmented style I can recall that fragmented epoch.

Racing thoughts with no conclusions.  All links severed – – the web is for entangled poverty of mind.  Two types of people here – – those on drugs and those not.  I wish I was on drugs.  Then this might stop if I stop.  Molasses thoughts with no rest.  Just stuck.  God help me.  Who is God?  I am god.  Why can’t I read?  Why can’t I think?  Why can’t I write?  It doesn’t make sense and I hate nonsense.  I hate more and more and more.  I hate the one who made me and hate the one he made.  I raise a fist against that god.  Why doesn’t he just kill me?  Man propositions me.  Another fight.  After weeks a lower security unit with a glass door where I can see light again.  I walk through the closed glass door with outstretched arms.  Still.  Have.  Scars.  More restraints.  More meds.  More diagnoses.  Depression.  Mania.  Psychosis – – I favor that one.  Everything is related if I can just figure it out.  Everything has significance, so nothing does.  More drugs, less rage, less everything.  Less.  I don’t have the courage to kill myself.  Myself.  Myself?  Haldol and thorazine until my tongue fills my mouth in dystonic revolt.  Ativan, valium, anything to … calm … me … down.  So down that I slept 20 of 24 hours and despaired of the other 4.  Despair.  What does Bertrand Russell know of despair?  What does the writer of Hank know of despair?  Unyielding despair so corrosive that it didn’t leave me desperate.

I hate you God – – just kill me and send me to hell.

-conclusion tomorrow-




Photo credit:  Handwritten letter by Descarte: by PHGCOM [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons


On Friday evening, Pascal and his lovely wife did something amazing. They opened their home and invited me, my wife (CC from The Counterfeit Christian), and six other people (including their oldest son and a couple that we’d only previously met as bloggers here) to sit down with food, wine, and fellowship. We each listened intently to those with sometimes similar, and sometimes wildly different world-views — but we did so with gentleness and respect. Free from hostility we were able to be open and vulnerable. This environment was very refreshing and led to real connections. We were each advocates of the legitimacy of our adversaries as people, which often led us to legitimize one another’s point of view.

CC wrote about her experience that night in this excellent post that I’m reblogging.

When Pascal and I started the online adventure that is, we hoped it could grow to be more than a blog. Gentleness and respect was and is more than a tag-line — its a recipe for understanding and friendship. Our meetings originally started across a physical breakfast table and continue there. The blog is just one medium of our communication. We wanted the meaning behind the blog to be a movement that reached into lives of people.

CC describes a ripple effect in her post, and that’s a bit like what’s happened here. This blog is just another tiny pebble dropping in the pond. We didn’t start the ripple, it’s been emanating for thousands of years — but we do want to join it. We hope that each of you will take it to your own communities and the effect will grow.

Pascal decided to call this meeting a dĂ©tente, which means the easing of hostility or strained relations. It’s now a monthly affair. Consider opening your homes and lives to those of different points of view in your own dĂ©tente.


If someone cared enough to invite you to a meeting like this, would you go? Why or why not?

Would you consider hosting a détente of your own? Why or why not?

Gentleness and respect,

The Counterfeit Christian

dinner table

DĂ©tente, n: The easing of strained relations

It’s my friend Pascal’s word. I guess it’s really anybody’s word, but he was the first in my circle to use it in the context I’m writing about.

Where is the tension? What relations are strained? So many. I’ll start on the inside and work my way out.

There’s a battle within me. I want to believe, but I can’t intellectually justify it. The tension is so great that I’m discovering that it’s the one thing I can’t really even talk about with my usual eloquence. I can’t figure out the denouement of my own story.

When I try to tell it, I start with the background story of why my faith matters to me in the first place. I went through times when it was the only reason I had enough hope to keep living. My faith told me that God…

View original post 1,598 more words

Faith Poll – What Do You Believe?

“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” – attributed to Socrates.

If you’re a believer (Christian, Muslim, Mormon, etc.), have you ever felt like your arguments were being completely ignored by the atheist you were conversing with? If you’re an atheist, have you ever wondered at the believer that wouldn’t bow to what you perceive to be sound reasoning? It’s tempting to think that your adversary is just too dense or stuck in their ideology to listen, but what’s really going on and how can you improve your chances to make them see your point?

Cognitive biases and other logical fallacies are very serious roadblocks to truth in any emotionally invested world-view. Unchecked, they make it extremely difficult to seriously consider any conversation that challenges our current belief system. In my experience one of the best inoculations against many of the naturally fallacious influences of the human mind is to:

  1. Acknowledge that they are real and you and I are not immune to them.
  2. Choose to care more about finding truth (or at least avoiding cognitive dissonance) than preserving existing beliefs.
  3. Admit that statistically we each also hold some percentage of false beliefs but we don’t know which ones they are.
  4. Spend time trying to learn the fallacies linked above.
  5. Think about how each fallacy may have influenced our current beliefs.

If we (ourselves and our opponents) can consistently follow these steps, we will be on guard against one of the most dangerous fallacies of all – motivated reasoning – and will have achieved a belief system that fulfills Hume’s admonition:

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.

If we can further recognize that:

  1. Each of us, even our opponents, believe what makes the most sense to us at the time based on our specific phenotype.
  2. None of us are knowledgeable enough about either naturalistic cosmogeny or the intentions of a God to justify vain certainty on these topics.

… it will help us be more willing to have theological conversations with humility, gentleness and respect. Vitriol breeds vitriol. Love breeds love. Off my soapbox and onto the point of this post. I don’t want to lose you before the poll at the bottom. 🙂

Identifying your and your adversary’s theological belief position – and why it matters

Pascal and I started our conversations by identifying misconceptions about the other’s position and we’re still doing that today. Misunderstandings inhibit fruitful conversation and make the odds of convincing someone that much more unlikely.

One of the first issues we encountered is the same one I see repeated often on the internet – the straw man argument, specifically as it relates to someone’s theological belief position. The issue comes from our mind’s natural tendency to justify its own beliefs by thinking of its adversary’s beliefs in a way that makes them seem less tenable than they actually are. Then there’s the fact that the terms we tend to use to identify our belief positions are too ambiguous due to multiple possible definitions. As a result, our minds tend to think our adversary’s hold the easiest position for us to knock down. It’s a significant problem because until we accurately understand what we believe and what our adversary believes, we can’t form arguments that address the real issue – the differences between us.

I created this graphic a while back for Pascal visualize where my beliefs line up on the spectrum (as I see it), where his do, and what the actual differences are. As he knew, gnosticism/agnosticism are knowledge positions while theism/atheism are belief positions – so they overlap. When someone says their agnostic about God it doesn’t technically tell you whether or not they believe in God, as the chart will show. Once atheism started becoming culturally acceptable, people started adopting the more specific label – thus we have atheists that are really what we used to think of as agnostic. Pascal suggested I share the chart here in case it’s helpful for anyone one else. I can’t tell you how many debates this helped us avoid, and how few of the arguments I see discussed on the web are even relevant to my form of atheism.

The first step is to identify what your belief position is. Then you can send the other party here to identify theirs. Once you know both, you can work out where you actually disagree which will help you determine where to focus your arguments.

Theological Belief Positions created by Russell at

Theological Belief Positions created by Russell at

The chart is pretty straightforward with one exception. Every God-claim has a set of properties. A God-claim is the description of the God being proposed (e.g. the concept or mental image about the God, including his actions, intents, properties, nature, powers, etc.). If you’re an atheist because you reject the culturally common God-claim around you (e.g. Christianity), that doesn’t necessarily mean your theological belief position has to match your confidence (or lack thereof) in that specific God-claim. For example, you may be a gnostic atheist about Zeus, an agnostic positive atheist about the version of God you interpret from the Christian Bible, but an agnostic negative atheist about the existence of some God or gods if you think you just haven’t heard the right God-claim yet. The Bible itself can be interpreted many ways, and each way that affects the character, actions, intentions, or attributes of the God is a different God-claim. Many people are gnostic atheists about the version of Yahweh that sends people to Hell, but still consider themselves gnostic theists about the God of the Bible (because they hold a different interpretation). Someone can be an anti-theist (openly opposing belief and/or worship of a specific set of God-claims) regardless of what theological belief position they hold.

How will knowing this help a believer address an atheist?

Arguments about what you think is evidence for an order behind nature are not very relevant to most agnostic negative atheists, because they will often grant you that, at least for the sake of argument. Those types of arguments (cosmology, fine tuning, laws of nature, transcendental argument for God, laws of logic, etc.) are most relevant to the agnostic strong atheists or gnostic theists – though I’m not sure if there are many gnostic theists. What negative atheists need to know is why the specific God-claim your advocating (your interpretation of that deity’s properties, actions, intents) is the true cause for that order. There’s a big chasm between deism and your brand of theism, and that’s what you need to focus on when addressing an agnostic negative atheist.

I hope this graphic will serve as a reminder to all of us to find out what someone actually believes before we spend time and energy, and our audience’s patience arguing against a position they don’t hold.

Your turn – what do you believe?

I know this poll isn’t truly random due to the selection effect, but we really are curious to see if most atheists visiting our site and willing to take the poll are strong or gnostic atheists – which is what believers tend to argue against – or if there is a decent percentage of agnostic negative atheists that just lack belief in a God. On the theism side, what percentage of the believers who visit us are willing to admit that they are agnostic? This will help us get to know you – our audience.

The voting is anonymous. Please comment here if you have questions. Click or tap the chart image in the survey above to see it full-size so you can read it. Feel free to share if you find it useful.

Please let me know if you see any errors, and thanks for reading. If you were willing to respond to the poll, thank you for that, too! 🙂

Gentleness and respect,

Is It Possible To Convince An Atheist To Change Their Mind About God?

Thank you, thomashwalker2 for your comment on the recent post titled Ask an Atheist (or Christian) Series – Please Comment With Your Questions. I’ll write a follow-up post in a few days about what it would take to convince me (Russell) that God exists. This post is a more general response to your comment that follows:

It is not possible to prove scientifically that there is a God or that there isn’t a God to a mind that has already decided. Nobody is neutral and unbiased that has lived for even a short period of time. Trying to get an atheist to believe in God by changing their mind is an exercise in futility. People don’t become Christians because they changed their minds or were convinced by studying pile of scholarly data, but by a change of the heart. This isn’t an esoteric statement, but a simplified answer as to how spiritual enlightenment is achieved as opposed to intellectual advancements. There is a physical and a spiritual reality.

Thomas, I would like to seek clarification for a few things you mentioned and ask a question of you. I’ll start with this excerpt. Please forgive and let me know if I misrepresent or misinterpret you. A warning – I fear I’m going to be far too literal more than once in this post as I try to work out my objections to an argument that you might not even be intending to make. I hope that, if nothing else, making it through this will help you (or I) better understand the way I think. 🙂

It is not possible to prove scientifically that there is a God or that there isn’t a God …

I completely agree that it is not possible to prove the nonexistence of everything which might be considered a God (e.g. logically invalidate every God-claim). I also think it is possible to demonstrate that at least some specific God-claims cannot exist as coherent conceptual models in our minds (e.g. if said God’s nature is self-conflicting in a way that solidly breaks fundamental laws of logic as we understand them). Perhaps such a God could still exist outside of our reality, but it would be hard to justify confidence that these types of God-claims reflect something that could exist, since we couldn’t understand them (I’m reminded of Flatland). Also, depending on your meaning of proof (I will resist getting deep into epistemology here), I could think of ways to satisfy a level of certainty approaching proof that a certain type of God does exist (assuming He does and we could distinguish His actions from those of intelligent, advanced natural agents, which isn’t so clear). Lacking sufficient evidence for proof, I can think of many God-claims that are plausible – one or more of which could potentially represent a God that exists and governs the natural order. All of this assumes we have a working definition of the God-claim(s) that we can agree upon. So, I agree with your statement in general, but I thought it worth hinting at my thoughts on some of the more complicated specifics.

Trying to get an atheist to believe in God by changing their mind is an exercise in futility.

I want to spend some time trying to process this concept in words. I’m curious about what I believe is your claim here, but I may be misreading you. Perhaps you can clarify in a response. Here are my initial thoughts.

I’ve heard this sentiment on many sides of the (a)theistic divides. [Christians|Pentecostals|Muslims|Jehova’s Witnesses|Mormons|Atheists|etc.] are beyond convincing with reason because their minds are already made up. I think I understand where you are going – belief in God is often thought to ultimately be a heart/spiritual/God-orchestrated change, not a mental one. I think I understand the argument, but I’m struggling to understand how it is sound. I’m hoping you can help. We would probably both agree that beliefs aren’t always fixed and unchangeable for life. I’ve written about beliefs in many posts here, including how we come to them, how they change, the roadblocks to change, the effect that the certainty of different beliefs has on the framework of other beliefs in our mental model of reality (e.g. the crossword puzzle analogy I came up with to describe this interdependence with other beliefs – which I recently learned was already used widely when discussing coherentism), Bayes’ Theorem, my own feeble attempts at equations to represent the belief cascade, neuroscience, etc. My experience has been that my beliefs are not chosen, but are a consequence of evidences and the relative weight I put on those evidences based upon what I understand at the time.

As for the mind vs heart comments, I think we need to break it down a bit more. I believe things through a combination of factors including heart – which is really just inner/core parts of the brain – and the outer reasoning parts (that structural analogy is oversimplified and there’s a whole lot of overlap in brain functions, but I’m going to use it for this post).

Our predecessors created and repeatedly modified the rules and process of science (the modification is continuing today) as a way to train ourselves, not just to avoid cognitive biases and other logical fallacies (common traps for both the “outer” and “inner-minds,” reason and emotion, working together), but to combat our natural tendency to overly trust the “heart” parts when assessing reality because they are tuned more for achieving survival, comfort, pleasure, pain-avoidance, etc., not objective truth. Might they be right in the spiritual areas? Sure. But how do we measure one person’s subjective spiritual experience from another person’s and objectively justify a statement about who was right? There is efficacy in things like hope which are often believed to have a spiritual source. However, in almost every case, exposing testable spiritual claims to tests continually fails to objectively demonstrate that such claims lead to reliable physical outcomes (beyond the odds of chance by consistently disproving their null hypotheses) – as you alluded to in the idea that we can’t scientifically prove God.

If God can cause a spiritual change in the “heart” portions of the brain to bring about salvation, does that remove the burden of trying to convince non-believers with written words, an open breakfast invitation, and a life well-lived, as my great friend Pascal is doing? I don’t believe you think so. I’m just clarifying. It may be true that we can’t convince people who are certain in their opposing beliefs. However, “heart” changes often start from “head” changes. People think differently. Also, not all atheists are certain in their beliefs. I actually don’t know of any who are. The newest trend is for agnostics to take the label atheist, because it is more accurate and relevant (describing their belief position rather than just their knowledge position). My guess is that most people who call themselves atheists today are what you would traditionally think of as agnostic, because many choose the definition a(without)-theist(god) – which means they lack a positive belief in God claim X, but doesn’t imply that they positively believe their is no God.

Given all this, the notion that it isn’t possible to convince an “atheist” (read this to mean what many people think of as agnostic) to believe in God seems counterproductive. Aren’t these lost souls we’re talking about? Is the cold calculus that it is better to spend time on the low-hanging fruit (which atheists, as opposed to unreached people groups, are not)? How far does The Great Commission reach? If trying to convince atheists is futile, what physical thing other than prayer are you advocating that believers do in order to reach the skeptics? Shouldn’t believers use every possible method available to win people over? Is the solution to pray for them, but if they ask questions or try to engage, just turn away or deflect the argument? I’m honestly just curious. I’m definitely not presuming you’re saying this, but some people I know in the fold feel this way, very strongly. I hear it often in our Sunday School class. It’s anecdotal, but their approach when hypothetically finding out someone is an atheist is to say this conversation isn’t worth my time because nothing can convince the atheist except a “heart change.” They literally will stop all engagement with the person. I know this happens in all belief circles, not just Christian –> atheist. Every reader can likely think of examples.

I wish people (myself included) focused less on being right and more on the value of the process – listening, challenging and being challenged. Where most beliefs are concerned, be it spiritual enlightenment for this God or that, this political platform, that soccer team, etc., the focus is usually on getting the right answer as soon as possible, reaffirming that answer to ourselves to reduce our anxiety, and digging in our heels and holding onto it to preserve it as a system of beliefs grows up around and supported by it. In science, it’s different. The overall process of science is more important than any particular conclusion. Perhaps that’s why I’m struggling with this. I’ll press on.

Evidence shows that many people successfully reason into and out of strong beliefs during their lives (often multiple times) depending on the strength of the data at hand and how their present experiences/knowledge lead them to interpret that data. One could try to claim that it isn’t reasoning they’re using, but rather reasoning is how they describe the “heart” change after they’ve been convinced. Without compelling evidence, however, that claim is either just a change of definitions about what constitutes “reasoning,” or it’s an unjustifiable assertion of the source of complex and conflated mental processes. Either way, isn’t that very statement, that only a heart-change will convince you, an argument itself – one meant to be processed by the mind?

I was convinced that the Bible was trustworthy partially because of all the scholarly data I believed, in addition to the heart change. It came together. As a young child, that scholarly data was essentially in the form of my natural trust in my parents and authority figures who told me Christ was real (and loved me and was always with me – just what any child in similar circumstances would long to believe). If I’d been born in Iran I would very likely have believed in Muhammed, peace be upon him. In my early adult years scholarly data played a large role in convincing me about new areas of belief and faith. It also provided a buttress against doubt, as did worship music.

Worship music is still surreal to this day. It’s both compelling and haunting. I find it interesting that such a high percentage of Christian music is about reaffirming the worshipper that God is real. As a skeptic, lately I’ve wondered if He desires worship because He desires it, or if we project upon an anthopromophipsed God-figure that He desires worship partially so that we can fulfill our own need to convince ourselves through yearning, song that he is real. An evolution of faiths, if you will. The ones that had or adapted a way to fight off doubt (and won the birth rate race) survived and the others did not. Either way, worship touches the “heart” and I want to engage in it, but I can’t because the “mind” won’t be quiet about the fallacies it perceives.

Mind/heart is a nice historic analogy, but isn’t it all really just the head? The mind at work, making complex decisions based upon many arguing systems, some of which are more traditionally heart (emotion/survival) driven and some of which are prefrontal cortex/reasoning driven, but most of which have intricate dependencies and overlapping functions? Aren’t beliefs arrived at (at least in part) by the strength of argumentation relevant to the mind based on what it can process at certain stages in life? In the end, whether there’s a spirit world fighting for our hearts (manipulating the neurochemistry in our lower/back/middle-brain regions) or not, we know that argumentation is demonstrably effective and convinces people of things – and isn’t limited to just the prefrontal cortex. Chemical responses from other parts of the brain can influence, support, overwhelm and overcome it. And those parts are susceptible to the effects of relevant argumentation. When the “heart” is changed, by any means, it can rarely if ever be demonstrated that the agent of change was outside of the scope of what constitutes an “argument for the mind” (e.g. a car crash kills a friend and the emotion helps to convince someone to wear a seatbelt from now on – it’s still an argument to be evaluated, but one backed by the added power of emotion/heart portions of the brain which can tip the scales in favor of seatbelts).

Phrased in this language, it sounds like your stance is that in order for something to be convincing, it must originate from a change in the structural arrangement of the specific neurons in the emotional sections of their brain (what we call the “heart”). I know you’re not being this specific. Haha. I’m just getting it out. I’m unclear of how one could elicit such a thought from those areas of the brain without also involving at least some of the physiology in the non-emotional areas (since they overlap so much and are so interdependent). The traditional theistic thinking is that’s where the spiritual element steps in and tweaks the neurochemistry to make such a thought or belief occur. I don’t even have a problem with that. It might happen. However, it seems clear to me that unless someone is pulling my spiritual strings consistently at the right times, my beliefs are highly correlated with the arguments I hear. As such, it’s hard for me to say that rational argumentation isn’t a valid means of effecting and emotional/heart position. I’m of the view, and my guess is that you would agree, that we should not dismiss discussing facts and evidences just because they sometimes don’t work. That doesn’t make them futile.

Also, your statement sounds like you’re advocating giving up. Again, it’s very possible I’m misreading you. I apologize for that. I don’t want you to give up on me. I want to have faith and be able to believe as you, Pascal, and the other believing readers do. If you are giving up on engaging with atheists, I urge you to reconsider. Successful argumentation of any form results in “planting seeds.” You can’t know what argument will be effective for an individual until you make it. I’ve heard many stories of atheists who turn to Christ (and people in other belief circles that moved to still others) based largely on the information and arguments they heard. The “heart” probably changed along with their change of mind, but many of them describe decisions that were based upon the arguments. They were convinced.

It’s also not about proof. Science doesn’t prove things, only disproves them. Just because things can’t be proved doesn’t mean evidence isn’t helpful in justifying belief for or against them.

Consider engaging non-believers in these issues, or at least be supportive of and promote those believers who do. At the end of the day, the fisherman will bring home more fish than the ostrich. Yes, I thought that line up myself. Yes, you can use it. 🙂

This is what I’m asking myself based on some possible implications from similar comments I’ve heard. Why would we want to put trust in something that is immune to challenges against its veracity? What does it say about a belief system if it can’t be swayed by evidence? How much confidence should we have in a set of beliefs that we can’t be reasoned into, but must be convinced of by our most untrustworthy brain regions (those that constitute the “heart”) until we believe strongly enough to push past the doubts of our more trustworthy regions – just long enough for pattern matching, confirmation bias, argumentum ad populum (among many others) to kick in and keep it going? If science and the philosophers of science through the ages have told us that we should avoid these logical fallacies if we want the best chance of finding answers that accord with both transcendent logic and physical reality, should we ignore their warnings and give our mind free reign to follow our “heart” just because the topic is related to the supernatural? The supernatural is a philosophical realm that is technically unknowable by definition. I’m of the opinion we should bring to bear all the tools we have acquired over the last 2500 years for keeping our beliefs in proportion with the evidence, especially when it comes to unknowable things. If not, we may find ourselves committing murder and suicide with a bomb in order to demonstrate that our beliefs are worthy. Or we may end up with the strong opinion that those who think differently aren’t worth the effort it takes to learn from and reason with them.

There is a physical and a spiritual reality.

Almost certainly and maybe. We can be most certain in the existence of a physical reality of some sort (if only conceptual depending on your philosophy, e.g. solipsism, some forms of rationalism, etc.). I think most people would agree with high confidence that there is a physical reality. What we consider the spiritual reality may exist, and some or all of it may even be definable under the umbrella of physical reality if we could understand it. There are many ways to define it, so I don’t want to assume too much on your meaning. This is getting very long so I won’t get into examples. If you count transcendent reality as spiritual reality, then I agree that there is a spiritual plane of existence (though I wouldn’t call it that). If you mean something beyond laws of logic, numbers, etc., (and I think you do) it seems a tough subject to have high confidence in. It seems to be, by definition, something we can’t grasp, or can’t learn enough about to understand and that which is very difficult to distinguish from the imagination. It’s also unfortunate that beliefs or actions that are claimed to have been spiritually influenced have failed to be demonstrably different in nature from beliefs or actions that are perfectly explainable by natural, non-spiritual influences. If the only way it communicates with us is through our heart – which is an inner, older, and less-trustworthy part of our mind – and if that just happens to be the same exact way our subjective imaginations, dreams (literally sleeping dreams and waking aspirations), fears, loves, hurts and hopes manifest to our conscious/thinking outer reasoning brain – how are we to distinguish the bad taco from the numinous?

Just because the thought that bubbles up to our conscious mind is in line with scripture doesn’t mean we can trust it is from the spiritual realm, right? I’m suspicious when the information claimed to have been given to different people from the spiritual realm doesn’t seem to agree. The physical reality, at a base level, is very likely real. Without a good understanding of what is from this spiritual realm and what isn’t, it’s hard to have high confidence that the spiritual reality you’re speaking of is a real thing, possessing authority and handing us certain thoughts or beliefs. It might be. I have hope, but unfortunately, not enough confidence for belief.

Thomas, after writing all this, my guess is that we actually probably agree on most points, but I got caught on some specific wording that confused me. You didn’t even ask a question. Haha. Thanks for reading all this, if you did. 🙂

My question for you, Pascal, and anyone else who made it this far is this:

How do you confidently distinguish the spiritual from the imaginary?

If you can share a simple way to do this that seems reliable, it might be the beginning of an argument that could convince an atheist to believe.

Gentleness and respect,

Ask an Atheist (or Christian) Series – Please Comment With Your Questions

“If you don’t believe in God, why be good when nobody is watching?”

“What would it take to convince you that God exists?”

“I just can’t imagine anyone believing that God doesn’t exist. How does that happen?”

One of our primary goals for this blog is to increase our understanding of those with opposing views in a friendly, respectful environment. What you see above are a few of the more common questions that I’ve heard recently (in person by the very few people who know my stance) regarding my atheistic position. They are sincere questions and I’ll attempt to seriously answer each them in my next few posts.

Your turn

Pascal and I have a great friendship and have enjoyed learning from one another in the back and forth discussions encompassing (a)theism, science, skepticism, the Bible, meta-physics, theology, meta-cognition, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, epistemology, how to live/love/reason, etc. His recent posts on Romans have been matched by a steady growth in blog followers – probably mostly Christians. As such, I’d like to formally welcome our new readers (Welcome!) and invite you to comment with questions for Pascal (the Christian) or Russell (the atheist). We’re both interested in addressing sincere questions from you. It is the real questions from real readers that impact our hearts the most. We take you seriously, and we learn when considering our answers and your responses.

  1. If you’re an atheist or agnostic, is there something you find unreasonable about Christianity or theism in general? Pascal has a heart for skeptics and doubters and is both kind and humble enough to respond honestly and seriously to questions about his faith (see Why I Respect Pascal).
  2. If you’re a believer, is there anything you don’t understand, don’t find reasonable, or are just curious about regarding atheism?

You can comment anonymously if you prefer. You’re safe here. Welcome. 🙂

Gentleness and respect,