Where I am

The Wanderer Above the Sea of FogLast updated March 9, 2015

Throughout the course of this journey my opinion on the viability of the Christian worldview vs the naturalistic worldview will inevitably vary. This page is intended to present a snapshot of my overall opinion, as a collective consideration of all topics.

Topics which point me toward Christianity or Theism

  • Origin of the universe: I find the cosmological argument reasonable, though not decisive, and fine-tuning to be a compelling argument for the first cause having intentionality. The naturalistic alternative explanations are all still very speculative, though the multi-verse does seem to be a natural consequence of several of them. On the flip side, theistic accounts only fit because of their ad-hoc nature and the discrepancies between the biblical account and the scientific evidence severely damages the more specific Christian account, despite the attempts to work-around this by interpreting the Genesis account allegorically.
  • Jesus’ resurrection: When you do not start with a low prior probability for the miraculous, it seems to me that the resurrection is the best explanation for the evidence. That said, the evidence is very one-sided, is not always consistent and is all rooted in Christian belief, which has any number of possible origins. There are multiple naturalistic theories that collectively offer a significant counter to the resurrection hypothesis and do not presuppose the existence of supernatural forces. This topic carries a strong “chicken and egg” tension for me. I feel like the resurrection is only the best explanation if we can get past the historical limitations of assessing miracle claims, but this effectively presupposes the existence of God – the very thing for which we are seeking evidence.

Relevant topics which do not point me toward theism or naturalism

  • Origin of life: While there are not any detailed and well-evidenced theories on how we arrived at a the first self-replicating life forms, my recent introduction to the concept of dynamic kinetic stability and the field of systems chemistry has tempered my prior leanings against an autonomous emergence of life. In short, the first “life form” need not have been highly complex and was perhaps better defined as a network of molecules rather than a singular entity. Furthermore, once established, the drive of dynamic kinetic stability would induce the subsequent rise in complexity. For more information on these ideas, see Addy Pross’ book “What is Life”.
  • Morality: Honestly, this has been one of the biggest question marks for me. I really don’t know where I land in the morass of ethical theories out there. I can sense the emotional appeal of moral realism, and I see how it favors some type of theism, yet I cannot understand why I should think that it is more likely true than non-realist theories. I am perpetually uncommitted to any moral framework but if I survey my options strictly from an evidential standpoint then I currently find myself leaning toward a type of relativism.

Topics which point me toward Naturalism

  • Origin of humans: The evidence for common descent is substantial. Attempts to fit it with the bible (theistic evolution) feel forced and, while the immense complexity infers design, there are also many “design faults” that don’t reconcile with a divinely guided process. In addition, the concept of depravity and death as a consequence of sin seems to be so deeply ingrained in Christian theology that I find it difficult to reconcile with common descent. Conversely, I also recognize that there are many evolutionary outcomes that are difficult to comprehend under a purely naturalistic model. If theistic evolution could be better harmonized to divine revelation then it would be much more convincing.
  • The mind: I’m still learning about theories of consciousness but I’m strongly leaning toward a purely materialistic understanding. There is good reason to believe that interaction with the physical world is the only source for the stimulation and training of the faculties which are commonly attributed to some immaterial part of us (mind/soul/spirit). That said, I’m also discovering that there are many Christians who do not view the soul as something distinct from the body. This makes this less of a purely naturalistic argument, though I don’t yet have a handle on the theology behind such a view. Lastly, it’s also clear that the mind is quite susceptible to bias and toward constructing an internal reality that doesn’t align with the external reality that is corroborated by others. It’s reasonable that these internal constructions are a good explanation for many, if not most, forms of religious experience.
  • The inspiration of the bible: It seems to me that the bible is an extremely human book. I find it difficult to believe that the end result is what God actually wanted. The internal inconsistencies, external incompatibilities and similarity to other purely human writings are too prevalent to attribute to divinity. This is perhaps the most significant issue for me because the majority of difficulties with Christianity can be dismissed if the bible is a purely human product. However, without divine revelation there is very little to support the Christian faith as we know it. Regardless, one must still acknowledge the undeniable power and influence this book has held through the centuries.
  • The problem of evil (especially the suffering of innocents): I’ve yet to encounter a satisfying explanation for how a perfect, loving, moral God can allow the senseless suffering of the most undeserving. This makes a lot more sense in the context of an indifferent natural world. I understand the free will argument, where eternal joy far outweighs temporary suffering but that also leads to more questions. If God is personal and will intervene, say as a response to prayer, why does he allow cases of senseless suffering of innocents? Free will also does nothing to explain the natural disasters that cause so much suffering.
    I have also arrived at a logical argument which asserts that a free will theodicy (explanation for evil) either requires limiting God’s power or abandoning the free will theodicy and acknowledging that God is the author of evil, pain and suffering (e.g., Calvinism). Until somebody demonstrates the flaw in this argument, this leads to a pretty uncomfortable picture of God.
  • Efficacy of prayer: This bothered me even as a Christian. I have always noticed that people tend to disregard unanswered prayer and exalt answered prayer. In most cases, it seems to me that answered prayer either comes down to normal probabilities or the desire to find an answer regardless of the result. Unanswered prayer is explained away as “God said no”. It’s difficult to find evidence that prayer ever actually changes anything, except perhaps in the mental state of the person that is doing the praying or the person who knows that they are being prayed for.
  • The end of time: The Old Testament frequently infers that God will restore Israel to an everlasting kingdom in the near future and the New Testament strongly suggests that Jesus’ second coming will occur shortly after his death. Obviously neither of these have happened and attempts to explain this away are quite unsatisfactory. It is also difficult to understand why God would create us, let us run around for a while fighting and dying, and then fix everything. If God can establish an eternal kingdom that does away with all the troubles of this world, why didn’t he just do that in the first place?
  • The diversity of religious experience: Religious belief is grounded in religious experience, either a personal experience or the experiences of forerunners that have resonated with subsequent generations. I can’t say that I have any personal experiences which defy naturalistic explanations. Regardless, reports of these experiences are widespread, so we have to account for them. A good explanation for their ubiquity would be that there is an objective source, but when we examine them we see great variety. This would seem to indicate that they are subjective in nature and that they are only widespread because we are all human with the same subjective capacities. Personal testimony is perhaps the most important evidence for God and the disagreement between testimonies damages them all unless all religions point to the same God, a God who is seemingly disinterested in accurate revelation.
  • The hiddenness of God: If God wants all to “come to repentance” then why make it so hard to find him? There are typically two responses: (a) God isn’t hidden, his presence is obvious and you’re missing it, or (b) God wants genuine love or worship, which requires that his presence is hidden enough to eliminate obligatory or artificial love. To (a), I simply call BS. To (b), I ask whether our experience of everything else even remotely compares to this. Do we achieve our closest relationships by keeping our distance? No, our relationships are strongest when we express our love and adoration in clear and tangible ways. Assuming the truth of the Christian worldview I will agree that Jesus’ death and resurrection would be a clear and tangible expression of God’s love, but only to the immediate witnesses. The power of that expression is significantly diminished for the rest of us.

The conclusion

Though I’ve given considerable thought to a large number of topics I still have much to learn. The scope of that task is almost overwhelming, but that is what this journey is all about. Regardless, I want to offer occasional updates on where I’m at. Here’s how I would currently rate my leanings:

Christianity
15%
Naturalism
85%

The most recent update was to go from 20/80 to 15/85. At this time I added the section to capture neutral topics and moved the origin of life section there along with a new section on morality (which had always been a glaring omission on this page due to the fact that I did not see it as favoring either theism or naturalism). I also made some clarifications to other sections.

It’s fair to ask which version of Christianity I am comparing to naturalism. The diversity of Christian doctrine is almost overwhelming and I don’t think that it’s unfair to point out that this is a problem – that God’s communication was so unclear so as to lead to such diversity. Conversely, most Christians would attest that denominations other than their own are equally saved. That realization then makes the revelation almost seem ingenious in that it achieves salvation while allowing people to incorporate their own realities in different ways. Of course, this then runs into another problem – where do you draw the line? Universalism is, as far as I can tell, accepted in a very small minority of Christian circles and is often chastised due to the extreme lack of support in the bible.

All that said, the Christianity that I’m supposing in this comparison is whichever Christianity I find to be the most reasonable at the time. At the time of my most recent update to this post, I find that the most reasonable Christianity is one which does not hold to biblical inerrancy, allows for evolution, defines the soul as an intricate part of the body (not something ethereal), holds to either some form of universalism or annihilationism and, perhaps, embraces limitations on God’s abilities as an answer to the problem of evil. I expect to be putting some time into better understanding the theology of NT Wright, CS Lewis and Karl Barth, who have for the most part expressed some form of many of these views while still establishing a highly regarded Christianity. This also seems to be similar to the theology of most scientists that subscribe to a Christian faith.

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16 thoughts on “Where I am

  1. Hi Travis, thanks for opening up comments here. I wanted to briefly outline where I differ from you here, not in any exhaustive way, but just enough to possibly spark some future posts and discussion. I think several of your “negatives” are “positives” for me …

    Origin of humans/mind. I lump these together. I accept evolution and I don’t think there are great difficulties accepting that Genesis is pre-scientific and appropriate for the times. But I agree with you when you say: “I also recognize that there are many evolutionary outcomes that are difficult to comprehend under a purely naturalistic model.” I think the following are difficult (I think actually impossible) for naturalism to explain satisfactorily:

    consciousness – how can physical processes in a lump of meat be “about” something and define an individual? (the so-called hard problem)
    free will – if there are only physical things, there is no way for the physical chain of cause and effect to be broken and allow freewill
    ethics – if naturalism, we can have moral intuitions feelings and commitments, but they are only subjective and mine are as good/bad as yours
    rationality – natural selection selects for propagation of genes and deep theoretical rationality is unlikely
    human rights – if naturalism, there is no basis for human rights, we are all just slightly smarter lumps of meat

    Some naturalists (e.g. Alex Rosenberg) bite the bullet and say all those things are illusory, but most of us believe our experience rather than reductionist naturalism – and it is just as well we do, because there are severe consequences waiting down the line. So these things seem to me to give a strong positive to theism.

    The inspiration of the bible. Yes, I agree, the Bible is in many respects a very human book. But once we decide that, it is also a very remarkable book. Read Isaiah 9:1-7 and wonder how did a monotheistic Jew write that?? More importantly, the gospels are amazing stories, the main parts of which have been shown to be basically historical (not saying everything can be, just the main aspects of the story of Jesus). There are problems galore in the Bible if we believe it to be inerrantly inspired, but if we treat it as a human book there are some amazingly inspired pieces of writing.

    Efficacy of prayer. This is the big one. Of course not all prayers are answered. But the evidence is piling up that sometimes God answers prayer in ways that cannot be explained in any other way. Hundreds of millions of people claim to have been healed after prayer to the christian God, and even if an enormous percentage of these are mistakes, urban myths or spontaneous recoveries, there are enough with sufficient medical evidence that cannot easily be explained to show me that God must have done it. There are also many conversion stories where people received amazing visions and communications. I think this evidence is very strong for anyone who will investigate it.

    The diversity of religion. I don’t have a problem here. There are good historical, philosophical and theological ways to show the various religions have some things in common, but also many crucial things different – and I believe to show that christianity contains more truth than the others do. I am inclusivist, like CS Lewis and Billy Graham (i.e. while Jesus is the only way, God’s grace reaches out to people of other faiths who respond to the light they have been given), so I can see other religions as vehicles for God’s grace even though they are not true in many respects.

    The hiddenness of God. Again, I see little problem. It’s not (as many people say) that God stays hidden so we can exercise faith, but that God wants us to be “like him” – that is, rational, ethical, conscious, loving beings who have been given autonomy and should exercise autonomy. And that would be impossible if God was a looming presence. Autonomy requires freedom (if you love somebody, set them free) not coercion, and God is so powerful that if he was more present he would be coercive.

    So that’s just a few thoughts. Hopefully we can take up some of these matters in more detail some time. Thanks for the opportunity.

    • Hi Eric,
      Good comments. I’ll offer a few thoughts in response.

      Your comments on origins of humans mind are of course contentious. I’m still learning but it looks to me like there are good reasons to think that consciousness and its byproducts are materially sourced. At the very least I think you have to admit that if there is some immaterial aspect of us then its manifestation is tightly coupled to the material in the brain. The breadth of that potential discussion is enormous, so I’ll leave it at that.

      The inspiration of the bible … Read Isaiah 9:1-7 and wonder how did a monotheistic Jew write that??

      Are you hinting at the divine attributes assigned to the child? The notes in the NET version (see lumina.bible.org) offer some interesting insights into that passage. I totally understand how a Christian can retrospectively look at that passage and think that it’s screaming about Jesus, but in the full context it seems to fit better as an expression of the hope for the imminent rise of a king that will defeat Assyria.

      The inspiration of the bible … if we treat it as a human book there are some amazingly inspired pieces of writing

      I agree. The question is whether that inspiration is divine.

      Efficacy of prayer … I think this evidence is very strong for anyone who will investigate it.

      I agree that this could be powerful evidence and I do plan to investigate further. How do you distinguish between God truly acting and the cases which simply fall on the 0.001% sliver of the bell curve? To overcome the statistics, something has to be effectively impossible or it has to occur with far more frequency than we would expect from a naturalistic perspective. I’ll admit that I could be wrong on this one. It’s possible that I have so far just overlooked all the evidence that does exist.

      The diversity of religion … God’s grace reaches out to people of other faiths who respond to the light they have been given.

      Who gave them the light they received? If it was God, why did he do so in a way that so poorly represents the true expression of himself? Or, if we say that the incorrect parts are simply the result of human corruption or misinterpretation of the light, why didn’t he do a better job with the light he did give?

      The hiddenness of God … God is so powerful that if he was more present he would be coercive

      On what basis can you defend this statement? Perhaps you reject the existence of fallen spiritual beings, but if they do exist then they are a clear example of agents for whom God’s existence was far more obvious yet chose to reject him anyway.

  2. Hi Travis, yes let’s be brief here, or these topics could expand like the big bang at the beginning!

    “I think you have to admit that if there is some immaterial aspect of us then its manifestation is tightly coupled to the material in the brain.”
    Yes of course – in this life. But I don’t think this is necessarily so.

    “I totally understand how a Christian can retrospectively look at that passage and think that it’s screaming about Jesus, but in the full context it seems to fit better as an expression of the hope for the imminent rise of a king that will defeat Assyria.”
    Yes, perhaps that is true. But many decades ago now I competed a degree in theology, and as part of that I studied OT prophecy in general and Isaiah in particular. I formed the view then, and still think, that prophecy isn’t as one-dimensional as many christians and many critics think. It expresses principles and understandings that may work out in detail more than once and in many different ways. Thus the Isaiah 7 passage about a young girl conceiving clearly had an application in the near future, yet that didn’t prevent it being seen by the NT christians as applying to Jesus too. (Jews of that time had much more fluid approach to applying the OT scriptures to their present day.) Likewise Isaiah 53 may be about a historical figure, or Israel itself, but the same principles clearly apply to Jesus in the NT as well.

    So I can’t understand how Isaiah came to use words like “mighty God” to describe any human being, unless God inspired him, even though I don’t think he had any idea about Jesus. But he (plus Ezekiel and a few others) have some amazing insights into God’s character and purposes even though they didn’t see the detail – in fact, they are all the more amazing for that.

    “How do you distinguish between God truly acting and the cases which simply fall on the 0.001% sliver of the bell curve?”
    I don’t think it is possible in any one case. The only way to do it is by statistics. I am not the world’s best statistician (to say the least!) but I have some understanding of Bayes Theorem, and I have applied it to the question of miracles (see Miracles and probability: the adventures of a maths nerd and answered the question you ask here. Now maybe I got the method all wrong. Certainly you could make different assumptions. But I think it stands up. I’d be interested in your comment.

    “Who gave them the light they received? If it was God, why did he do so in a way that so poorly represents the true expression of himself? Or, if we say that the incorrect parts are simply the result of human corruption or misinterpretation of the light, why didn’t he do a better job with the light he did give?”
    If, as I believe, God made us autonomous, that limits his interference. I think that explains a lot of things.

    “On what basis can you defend this statement? Perhaps you reject the existence of fallen spiritual beings, but if they do exist then they are a clear example of agents for whom God’s existence was far more obvious yet chose to reject him anyway.”
    I’m not 100% sure what I believe about fallen spiritual beings, but at present I think they exist. Yours is a good point. My initial thought on this is that it makes a difference whether we are spiritual or hybrid physical/spiritual beings. We are obviously talking way beyond our understanding here, but a spiritual being is in its natural element with God and we are not. A spiritual being may be eternal – i.e. lives outside of time – and perhaps this makes a difference. I admit, I don’t really know (how could I?), but neither do I know if your objection is reasonable either. So I feel divine hiddenness makes sense for us, however it may or may not apply to other beings.

    Thanks again for some provoking thoughts.

    • Thanks Eric. I don’t have much to add so I’ll leave it at that. I’ll also take a look at your miracles and probability posting and see if I’m inspired to comment.

  3. Hi Travis!

    I really enjoyed reading this page. You have clearly put into words so many of the exact same issues I have. I found myself nodding along with your points in favor of both Christianity and naturalism.

    For me, lack of efficacy of prayer and the hiddenness of God were the biggies that nagged at me for years. Reading about evolution opened the door to “perhaps there is no God”, and then all the doubts flooded me and I stopped believing. I’d say my % is down to 1% for Christianity, but at the same time I am still only considering the view of Christianity I came out of. The more liberal versions you are exploring have not been on my radar. I spent so long dismissing anything that did not include inerrancy, that it is still hard to accept that Christianity could be true but the Bible errant. That feels like people just making up a religion. But, as with everything else, I’m open to the possibility that I am wrong.

    One question. You wrote, “I also recognize that there are many evolutionary outcomes that are difficult to comprehend under a purely naturalistic model.”
    What outcomes are you referring to?

    • Hi “charles”,
      I enjoyed discovering your site yesterday. If you’re already down to 1% then your journey has been much more devastating than mine. As you noted, I think a key difference is that I had migrated to a liberal Christianity before realizing that I had actually slipped out of it altogether. For example, I remember a few years prior to deconversion tentatively advocating the possibility of universalism with our small group, knowing full well that I was treading on the edge of orthodoxy.

      Your question about evolution is a good one. I wrote that sentence two years ago and have learned much since. Even so, I think it is probably an allusion to primarily three things:

      1. The examples of irreducible complexity noted by ID advocates. I know that explanations have been offered for most, if not all, but those aren’t always wholly convincing unless you’re already committed to a purely random explanation.
      2. The frequency with which convergent adaptations have arisen is a bit remarkable. I won’t fault anybody for suspecting some sort of underlying guide behind that.
      3. Finally, there’s consciousness and all things mental. This is largely philosophical and my recent posts indicate that I’m unconvinced that this is a problem, but its still a bit of a question mark.

      I don’t see that these call evolution in general into question, but they might hint toward something like theistic evolution, where there is a purposive force behind things. Let me know what you think.

      • Yes, I see where those can cause someone to question whether or not there could be a guiding force behind evolution. I’m content to just say “I don’t know” and trust in scientists good track record of finding explanations.

        I find the ID stuff very unconvincing, especially given their clearly creationist motivations. Have you read much of Pennock? He has an edited volume of articles about the ID movement (some from ID proponents, most from those arguing against it). If found it to be very interesting and helpful. (Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives)

        Thanks for the reply! I really appreciate how you explain these issues in this post. It is clear you have thought through these issues.

    • “I don’t know” is a perfect answer. It compels us to further investigation, which eventually leads us closer to truth.

      I’ve only encountered Pennock in bits and pieces. He’s right that many IDers have strong theological motivations but that doesn’t mean we should unceremoniously discount their ideas. In fact, I suspect that those who have taken them seriously enough to seek answers to their questions would consider themselves, and evolutionary theory as a whole, to have benefited from the process.

      • I agree that the various flavors of creationism have led to some good things, namely better explanations of evolution.

        I’ve read that book I mentioned, and Tower of Babel by Pennock. Both were excellent. I also read “Finding Darwin’s God” by Ken Miller, a Catholic biologist who does a great job explaining evolution and arguing against creationism.

    • That’s a rather vague suggestion. I’m certainly more well versed in Evangelical positions but I am familiar with various Orthodox traditions. You’re welcome to elaborate if you have more specific ideas you want to share.

      • Sure. For starters this in your section on origins: “In addition, the concept of depravity and death as a consequence of original sin seems to be so deeply ingrained in Christian theology that I find it difficult to reconcile with common descent.”

        The ancient historic Christian faith, as retained in the Orthodox Church, does not hold to a doctrine of human depravity, nor does the historic faith hold that death was a universal consequence of sin, for instance as it applies to animal and plant life. I feel that you may be conflating modern young-earth-creationism and Evangelical Christian groups in general with classic Christianity. Having a working knowledge of the faith as taught by the Church for 20 centuries may bump your 20% Christian leanings up a few notches. 🙂

      • Oh the differences are much more than that. Augustine and the Western theology he inspired understands original sin as bringing not only death but depravity (later reworked by Calvin and others to be “total” depravity) of the human being. While its true that the Orthodox hold to a similar view of original sin in the sense that death was brought to mankind, there is no notion of depravity. As you may have noted from the links you gave, we believe there is a “leaning towards sin,” but this is a universe away from total depravity. The theological nuances are much greater in many more respects than a quick internet search-like study will reveal.

        But, again, this is only one aspect of how a working understanding of the ancient faith might help you to form a more complete picture of how Naturalism and Christianity stack up. Unfortunately time doesn’t allow me to go through the finer points (I’ve written quite a bit on the subject on my own blog, feel free to browse at your leisure). Besides this I think you have an interesting blog here and look forward to reading more in the future.

        Cheers.

    • Hi Bob,
      Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve read a couple reviews and this looks like a winner. One more book added to my ever growing list. Thanks!

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