I must admit that I find arguments for and against belief/God/religion fascinating — much in the same way as one may find a genetic mutation fascinating. Why? Mostly, it’s because many of the arguments completely miss the mark. This is because both groups of arguments generally disregard definitions and limits of disciplines (namely, religion and the empirical sciences). Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is a clear example of this as his argument relies on making empirical sciences the basis for theology as well as that other discipline he seems to ignore (religious studies). While I accept the fact that empirical sciences can and should make contributions to these other disciplines (and, more generally, to the humanities) — and vice versa (something with which I think Dawkins may be uneasy); this does not mean that the latter (humanities) can be reduced to the former (empirical sciences). Social constructs are generally not things that matter to a ‘scientist’ (or, more specifically, a chemist, physicist, biologist, etc), which is fine because no discipline serves as the queen of the university (unlike in the past).
At a friend’s request, I read a short article by John Loftus critiquing religious belief. In my reading of it, I found it follows the above difficulty. I will bring this out by a short, perhaps inadequate, response to that article. His main point, which he himself provides explicitly, is to show that ‘Christian faith should be rejected by modern, civilized, educated, and scientifically literate persons’. However, I will argue that (1) he completely fails to make this argument and (2) the argument he does make ends up being contradictory.
Loftus finds evidence for his thesis in the fact that even ‘Christian professors have probably had some doubts’. Questioning belief is not evidence of moving towards disbelief. Rather, it is just as plausible that one could be refining one’s own belief, contemplating arguments against one’s belief from a rational, logical perspective. In other words, there is a gap between saying ‘someone has doubts’ and saying ‘one no longer believes’; and Loftus fails to connect the two. Furthermore, he follows this observation with a second: religious pluralism. He points out (quite rightly) that the geopolitical associations of religion heavily influence one’s religious faith. For Loftus, this means one must ‘test [one's] religious beliefs as an outsider’. Apparently, that means without actually taking that line of questioning seriously, lest one begins to doubt. As a result, I find his ‘sociological reasons’ quite lacking; at best, this section of his argument can be used to critique any given choice of religious belief but not religious belief itself (i.e. to criticise specific belief in Christianity/Islam/Buddhism.etc but not the prized general belief of religion itself).
Loftus’s next argument turns more directly philosophical. It seems that his point is that proofs for God are inconclusive (no argument there), then follows an tangent on these proofs for the existence of God. So what if proofs for the existence of God are inconclusive? Has Loftus not heard of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem? Or better yet, why does Loftus so quickly dismiss absurdity as a viable option, particularly since he paints religious belief as absurd? This is because Loftus confuses sense with logic. Perhaps a quick reading of any of the various post-structuralists would show that the sense of an argument needn’t conform to propositional logic. This is largely because, I suggest, humans are illogical and contradictory. In short, criticising the form of an argument does not make a critique of the content of an argument. I’m not saying the form is irrelevant, but rather it isn’t always the bulk of an argument, particularly in this case.
When Loftus speaks of scientific reasons he is no longer a Christian, he mentions naturalism, opting for empirically observable and verifiable events. He uses this straightforward (and useful) approach against theists such as Plantinga (who argues that Christians should start with a set of beliefs before pursuing scientific analysis). Loftus also uses naturalism against theistic belief because modern science has provided us with effective applications of knowledge (e.g. medicine) that make obsolete religious acts which were once used in lieu of rational, natural explanations. However, he fails to argue that theism requires this kind of superstitious belief, something that would make his argument much more forceful. Rather, we must accept his premise without argument despite evidence to the contrary (e.g. anthropologists like de Chardin). This reliance on naturalism becomes a contradiction when Loftus suggests that the one thing that would make him believe is the supernatural bit excluded from naturalism: revelation of the ‘mysteries’ of God.
Loftus continues his tirade against theistic belief by turning to ‘Biblical reasons’. The fact that the Biblical text is riddled with discrepancies, errors, and often bigoted and violent concepts is enough for Loftus. However, I disagree on the basis that such evidence can only be condemning if one takes a particular kind of inerrantist approach to the Biblical text. In other words, Loftus chooses to ignore the contexts in which the various books that compose the Bible were written. That’s simply not an argument for or against anything. It would be no different than an argument for the eradication of all guns because they’re linked with murders. In other words, it is an argument that uses the effects of particular (mis)uses of a tool as sufficient reason to ban the tool completely.
The argument continues with a sceptical approach to history. Loftus’s scepticism is an epistemological one in which he demands absolute certainty. However, Loftus fails to recognise that empirical science suffers the same issue. Science is based purely on observed reality without any a priori postulates. We may not be able to have absolute certainty who killed Jon Bene Ramsey, how Stonehenge was erected, or when Christ was born. However, we also cannot have absolute certainty that the world in which we live and experience is real either. It’s the classic brain-in-a-vat scenario and Loftus’s response to that must also be the response to historical certainty. If one wishes to be sceptical by requiring absolute certainty, then such scepticism cannot be applied selectively.
The second part of Loftus’s criticism from history has more substance and is perhaps the most compelling argument against Christianity (and it could be extended to all religious belief if one wishes to dig into history). Why believe in God (or a particular religion) if there is evil (or the religion has a history of doing very bad things)? In fact, why support a political entity (e.g. country, party, etc) which has had a seedy history? The proper response, however, is not to abstain from religion or politics (or citizenship) but to determine if the bad history of them is integral to their identity or if it was a period of wrong movement. In other words, does the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity during the Crusades, Inquisitions, etc accurately represent Christianity or were the atrocities done by people misguided by other ideologies. For example, Loftus cites slavery in the US South as a case. What Loftus does not mention, however, is the Christian abolition movement, William Wilberforce and others in the UK, etc. In other words, he treats Christian thought as a singular entity despite the plurality of beliefs that has existed since its beginning.
Loftus’s final argument is a revision of the previous, turning explicitly to the problem of evil. It’s a question that has plagued religious thought for millenia, and it still doesn’t have a good answer. Yet the problem does not go away because God is taken away from the question. Evil still exists, we just don’t have a God to blame it on. In other words, the problem of evil cannot be seen as the basis to reject religion or theism, but as a problem that exists despite those. This is followed by one-liners that form the actual case against his belief in Christianity, but these are presented as simple facts rather than arguments.
In summary, Loftus wants to appear as being reasonable and logical for rejecting Christianity despite a collection of arguments that are not connected to the root issue. He asks for certainty, something that is generally taken as reasonable, but taken as an absolute requirement that cannot be met. In fact, not even empirical science can meet that requirement as all scientific theories, observations, and facts are subject to additional observations. The epistemological issue becomes confused as an ontological one. Rather than delving into arguments about the merits of Christianity (or even religion in general), Loftus presents issues that are secondary. In the end, his criticism of Christianity is that it doesn’t make sense (whoever said it was is selling something) and his criticism of God is that God doesn’t appear like aliens in film and television do when they announce their existence (i.e. by coming down from the heavens and saying ‘we come in peace’). He asks for evidence that prove beyond any doubt while either ignoring or forgetting that nothing is certain (besides death and taxes) when questioned enough. In short, the only truly reasonable/logical position would be complete agnosticism on the matter, leaving things open for further observations. Yet this is not what Loftus chooses, and it shows in his arguments.