A recent post by Chris not only gained my interest as a contributor, but also the interest of the individual whose article Chris was commenting on. This led me to dig a bit deeper into the article referenced at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/john_loftus/christianity.html to see what all the fuss was about. In doing so, I came across a rather interesting treatise by John Loftus on why it is unreasonable to be a Christian.
Due to the size of the article, and the limits I currently have on time (which I hope will be lifted once the new year comes around) I have determined to respond to just one paragraph from a single section that Loftus titles “Philosophical Reasons (1)” for not being a Christian. I chose the paragraph I did because it demonstrates a variety of problems that I find with his line of reasoning.
To provide some context for the paragraph I critique in a moment, consider what Loftus says early on in his article:
“Let me begin by talking about "control beliefs"—beliefs that control how one views the evidence. Everyone has them, especially in metaphysical belief systems where there isn't a mutually agreed upon scientific test to decide between alternatives. While we are largely unaware of them, they color how we see the world. Whether regarded as assumptions, presuppositions, or biases (depending on the context), they form the basis for the way we "see" things. As Alfred North Whitehead noted, "Some assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know that they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them."”
On the one hand, I am very excited to see Loftus speak about “control beliefs” or “presuppositions”, as there too many on both sides of the debate don’t realize they exist, and don’t realize the impact they have. Furthermore, I specifically like the term “control beliefs” as it makes the point so clear that these beliefs actually do control, to a great deal, the conclusions that we come to. On the other hand, I don’t think that Loftus notices that these very beliefs control his own argument against Christianity to the point that he engages in circular reasoning on more than one occasion.
Here then is the paragraph in question, broken into individual thoughts, and my comments on each:
“For instance, Christianity claims that God is a triune God, though no simultaneously orthodox and reasonable understanding of the Trinity seems possible.”
As Loftus never tells us just what he believes is unreasonable about the Orthodox view of the Trinity, I am going to have to go out on a limb and guess that it is the claim that there is one God existing as three persons. If I am correct in my guess, then I am stymied as to what Loftus finds unreasonable about this. Unless he misunderstands the position (as some do) to mean that God is both 3 and 1 at the same time and in the same sense, I see no grounds at all for his charge of unreasonableness.
“Though Christians usually think of God as a free agent, God is not free to decide his own nature.”
The question over what it means to be a “free agent” has been argued for a very, very long time. Christianity itself has different views, although I believe the Bible clearly presents a compatibilistic (i.e. non-libertarian) view of the will. What this means, in short, is that people are free just as long as they are not coerced in the choices they make. Furthermore, their choices are themselves ultimately determined by their nature. For instance, God cannot lie, as it is not within his nature to do so. Unregenerate man cannot help but sin, because it is his nature to do so.
Whether or not Loftus agrees with me on the nature of the will, he is clearly arguing from within his own set of control beliefs (or beliefs derived from them) when he claims that God cannot be properly called a “free agent” as God is unable to determine his own nature. The Bible states otherwise, and for Loftus to argue that his set of control beliefs are more appropriate based on appealing to his own definition of “free agent” is ultimately begging the question.
“Though conceived of as a "spiritual" being that created matter, no known "point of contact" between spirit and matter can be found.”
This is nothing more than an argument from personal conviction. The inability to identify the metaphysical mechanics behind how the material and immaterial interact does not, in and of itself, lend credibility one way or another. It only appears to do so from within the set of control beliefs that one is relying upon. The control beliefs Loftus subscribes to has an “answer” to this issue, but so do Christians, namely that God is ultimately behind any and all interaction of not only the material realm, but the immaterial as well.
The most that this objection can do for Loftus is further convince him that his set of control beliefs are correct, when already viewed from within his set of control beliefs. It doesn’t do anything to the Christian who has their own answer as well.
“Though Christians take it as a brute fact that God never began to exist, if we apply Ockham's razor a simpler brute fact is to presume that nature itself never began to exist.“
It is no more “simple” for Loftus to assume the universe has always existed than it is for a Christian to assume that God has always existed. For the Christian, the existence of God is the most basic and ultimate control belief, and so any other explanation is going to be more complex (i.e. it will introduce unnecessary entities). For Loftus, God is by no means the most basic control belief, and so any introduction of God into anything at all will always seem more complex than leaving him out of the picture entirely. Loftus appeals to a non-Christian set of control beliefs in framing his argument, and therefore ultimately begs the question at hand.
“God evidently never learned any new truths and cannot think, since thinking demands weighing temporal alternatives.”
It is true that God has never learned any new truths, as learning something “new” implies you did not know it prior to learning it. Given that God is omniscient, there was never a time he was in a position of needing to learn anything at all. I’m not really sure of the relevance of this to the discussion. It certainly isn’t a reason, even from within the control beliefs that Loftus subscribes to, to believe God does not exist.
As to God’s “thinking”, Loftus makes a general assertion as to what thinking demands, without apparently ever giving thought to what the Bible says about God’s own thoughts. Furthermore (and more importantly) he apparently does not consider what the Bible says about his own thinking process as an unregenerate individual. The very fact that Loftus believes he can accurately evaluate God against some standard external to God himself demonstrates quite clearly that Loftus is again framing his argument from a non-Christian set of control beliefs, and therefore (once again) begging the question at hand.
“This God is everywhere, yet could not even know what time it is since time is a function of placement and acceleration in the universe; or if timeless, this God cannot act in time.“
I will not address this particular item at this time and in this critique, as the question of the nature of time, what it means to be timeless, etc. is an extremely complex subject and is worthy of a separate discussion. However, lest Mr. Loftus think I am conceding this point, let me make it clear that I am not. I believe he is guilty of the same problem as seen above, arguing against something by appealing to a contrary set of control beliefs, and therefore begging the question.
I will address this item in a separate post as time permits.
“He evidently allows intense suffering in this world and does not follow the same moral code that he commands his believers to follow.”
How does God’s allowing of intense suffering in the world (which he most certainly does) make it unreasonable to believe in God? If Loftus is attempting to argue the Problem of Evil here, then he should spell it out in detail. A passing allusion to a common argument against God, especially one which has been refuted time and time again, is insufficient.
As to God following the same code he has given to all mankind (not simply his believers), why is this an issue for Loftus? Rather than argue whether God does or does not follow this code, or whether he should follow it if he does not, I would like to know why it would be a problem if he did not? How would this make it any less reasonable to accept the existence of God as a control belief?
“And so on.”
Loftus seems to imply here that there are even more “reasons” to accept his set of control beliefs over those of the Christian, yet he doesn’t share them with us. I certainly appreciate the fact that we all must stop writing at some point and move on to other priorities, but “and so on” is a mere statement of opinion - it doesn’t give us anything to evaluate, and so it adds nothing of any substance to this discussion.
I have no doubt that I make my own set of assumptions about Mr. Loftus in this critique, given that I know very little about him, and have read very little of his writings. I hope that he will feel free to correct any misrepresentations I may have made, and that he will also feel free to interact with those of us here at Choosing Hats.