Conversations on naturalistic faith, and the “die for a lie” apologetic

I want do a better job of keeping the cobwebs off this blog, and I’ve decided that I don’t always need to put together elaborate, heavily researched posts to do that. As with the previous post, one simple way to keep things active is to continue sharing some of the interesting interactions that I have in response to the content that others are producing. Toward that end, here are two more recent encounters:

#1 – Naturalistic Faith

If you’re not already familiar with Randal Rauser, I recommend getting to know him. He’s a prolific writer and a thoughtful apologist who employs careful reasoning and regularly campaigns for charity toward those who believe differently – and he isn’t afraid to challenge his evangelical peers. A few weeks ago he tweeted that

Few things are as ironic as a naturalist chiding a Christian about having “faith”

and then followed up on the blog with a little further clarification. At first glance this sounds similar the Turek & Geisler “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist” line, and I would normally expect Rauser to avoid that kind of rhetoric. Furthermore, as one who sees that naturalism requires little or no “faith” (especially relative to Christianity), I decided to engage. You can read the conversation for yourself in the comment thread of the post, but here’s my TLDR version:

  • Me: Is it still ironic if naturalism is defined in terms of what we are justified to believe exists, rather than what we believe actually exists?
  • RR: Yes
  • Me: I assumed the irony was because the naturalist was asserting the non-existence of non-physical things. Are you saying that the faith is in the superiority of empiricism? I think that there is an inductive argument to be made for the reliability of empirically based ontological claims versus non-empirically based ontological claims.
  • RR: I’ll still ask what justifies that belief. You need to spell out the argument.
  • Me: OK.
    P1: the credence assigned to an ontological claim is rational to the extent that the credence is in proportion to the reliability of the claim.
    P2: ontological claims with higher degrees of empirical reliance have consistently demonstrated proportionally greater reliability, in both degree and frequency, throughout the course of history.
    P3: empirical observations are describable by natural science, so that the degree of empirical reliance for an ontological claim is proportional to the extent to which it can be described by natural sciences.
    Conclusion: it is only rational to assign credence to ontological claims in proportion to the extent to which it can be described by natural sciences.
    RR: I assume you think realism (as opposed to idealism) is justified? In what sense is it justified by way of reliability?
  • Me: Realism requires the least amount of information, so it’s more probable in Bayesian terms, and Bayesian probabilities are ultimately reliable by way of empirical confirmation.
  • RR & JT: I disagree. Idealism is simpler. There are fewer entities.
  • Me: We need to consider the total amount of information, not the number of different entity types. The perceptual information includes realism (the ontological status of our self and other entities). It takes additional information to posit that realism is an illusion, and this additional information is not included in our perception (not empirical).
  • gq: It seems we all agree that realism is “justified as being a properly basic belief”.
  • Me: My acceptance of realism over idealism may be properly basic in practice but I think it is actually probabilistic, as argued above.
  • gq: Even Bayesian justifications rely on “properly basic beliefs”. For example, the reliability of memory.
  • Me: As one who leans toward pragmatism and coherentism, I initially accept the reliability of our cognitive faculties at face value and proceed to look at the study of their reliability to recognize the conditions under which they are more and less reliable, and I use the whole body of data to inform the assessment of reliability without getting hung up on the need for a definitive, indubitable foundation. Regardless, even if we define something in there as requiring faith, I don’t see that this is sufficiently analogous to the religious articles of faith to warrant the claim of irony.

This is almost certainly biased toward doing a better job of summarizing my arguments than the arguments of my interlocutors (I’m noticing a lot more green than black), but there’s a lot more detail in the original conversation if you want to go deeper.

#2 – The “die for a lie” apologetic

Another worthwhile read is the structureoftruth blog. The entire blog is the author working through a very deliberate, thorough and accessible exposition of his belief system in a progression from the ground up. Recently he posted an argument that is similar, but not identical, to what is often known as the “die for a lie” apologetic, wherein the veracity of the resurrection is inferred from the disciples’ willingness to undergo persecution. I find that the typical framing of this argument is flawed in the sense that it creates a false dichotomy that greatly exaggerates the relationship between the adversity and the source of the belief. Since that same approach appeared to be in use here, I decided to chime in. As before, you can read the exchange for yourself, but here’s my TLDR version:

  • Me: I would suggest that it is more appropriate to frame any adversity as being tied to their group identity rather than to one particular belief.
  • SoT: Why believe the disciples faced adversity merely because of their group identity rather than because of their proclamation of the resurrection, and what is there to say that their belief in the resurrection did not become a central part of their group identity?
  • Me: I’m not suggesting that the group identity did not include a belief in the resurrection. Rather, I’m suggesting that the “die for lie” apologetic is an exaggeration. Some reasons to think that “group identity” better relates to the adversity than “resurrection witness” include: historical precedent in general, Jesus’ crucifixion as evidence of pre-existing conflict, Paul does not cite the witness as a reason for his pre-conversion activities, Acts does not focus on the witness in the relevant narratives, and Tacitus cites the eucharist as a motivating reason (though it doesn’t apply to the disciples).
  • SoT: The fact that they persisted in that group identity following Jesus’ death is best explained by their conviction in having witnessed the resurrection. It is pretty clear that this belief was a key part of their group identity after Jesus’ death.
  • Me: The point is that we can’t boil their identity, and the corresponding conflict, down to a single belief. We should acknowledge that there are many factors – belief in the resurrection included – which contributed to the continuance of the group identity and the conflict with other groups.
  • SoT: If the resurrection belief did not originate in a first-person experience, why did the disciples claim it did? Group identity as a motivating force can certainly explain some of the adversity they faced and some of their persistence in the face of that adversity, but to me it seems far from sufficient. And we have no evidence for any origin of the belief in Jesus’ resurrection aside from the first person experiences of the disciples.
  • Me: I think it’s fair to suppose that the group’s belief in the resurrection contributed to adversity (in accordance with prior comments), but it is very different to claim that this requires physical, first-person experiences.I don’t think the gospels and 1 Corinthians 15 are incompatible with accounts that did not originate with the disciples, and even if we grant that they originate with the disciples, there is still the possibility of invention, retrospective mistaken identity, confabulation, or hallucination (or a combination of these).
  • SoT: To be more precise, the inference is from the willingness of the disciples to face adversity for proclaiming that they had witnessed the resurrection, not just from the fact that they faced adversity for believing in the resurrection. I am skeptical that something less than a powerful experience could have changed the disciples and caused the early Christian movement to grow the way it did.
  • Me: I agree that there is in the tradition some evidence that the disciples claimed witness to a resurrected Jesus. However, the phrasing of the argument asserts a very specific, exclusive relationship that is too narrow and overlooks all the other factors at play, so that the relationship is exaggerated. And there was no leaving or returning to Judaism. This was Judaism. The introduction of the belief in Jesus’ resurrection was more a revitalization than a change. These followers had already committed their lives to this group identity, and the drive to maintain that identity is a potent force.
  • SoT: I don’t think it is so narrow as you say, because to me it seems the force of the other factors would be significantly reduced in the absence of the resurrection experiences, so that the other factors are not sufficient to explain what happened. In the aftermath of Jesus’ death, why would the disciples continue to think that they had the true Judaism, when their Messiah had just been killed? Their group identity was “Judaism but done right” and doubt gets cast on the “done right” part by their leader’s death.
  • Me: This group was previously organized around a message that included more than Jesus’ messiahship, which is sufficient to serve as the glue that supports the resurgence that comes with the resurrection belief. They all didn’t simply drop their heads, turn around, and go their separate ways. That said, I’m also inclined to believe that the resurrection belief was a relatively early introduction, and that if it had not been introduced, the group would probably have been a minor footnote to history – much like the Mandaeans. The resurrection belief, coupled with the parousia, renewed their eschatology without having to change their chosen one.
  • SoT: I disagree that the group identity could have been as strong if the resurrection belief came from some other source than eyewitness experience (and I remain doubtful about the plausibility of that belief arising from any other source as well). It isn’t just the belief in the resurrection, but their experience of seeing Jesus risen that motivated the disciples.
  • Me: The “die for a lie apologetic” is typically drawing on the improbability of persons facing severe adversity for the sake of something they knew to be false. The version of the argument summarized in the previous comment is claiming that it is improbable for persons to be in a state in which they are willing to experience adversity, unless they were brought in to that state through direct, first-hand experience. I find that history and psychology shows that this is not at all improbable.

There was also a bit of a side thread where I questioned how he viewed Luke-Acts placing all post-resurrection events in Jerusalem while Matthew (and the hint in Mark) place everything in Galilee, and the likelihood that John 21 is an addition. We didn’t pursue that very far, but I think that a more critical review of the text does not support the notion that there was a strong tradition underlying the post-resurrection accounts in the gospels.

As before, I tried to be fair but this is still probably biased toward more accurately summarizing my arguments. Regardless, I’m interested to hear any other thoughts on the ideas shared in these two discussions.



Let me explain what I’m trying to do. First, you need some context.

Why am I here?

That question is not a segue into a profound discussion on existence. I am an engineer; and it seems to me that I’m wired that way. I was also raised in the Christian faith. Over the years, I’ve continued to feed my hunger for an understanding of the way things work and have, as a result, reshaped my faith to fit what I’ve learned and observed. Over time, this led me to a more liberal system of beliefs, though still clearly within the bounds of Christianity. I also came to accept that I simply cannot explain some of the difficulties associated with the Christian faith. I adopted a philosophy of focusing on the important stuff and learning to be content with saying “I don’t know” when it came to questions that don’t affect the doctrine of salvation. However, as I began to take this position more and more, I eventually realized that the questions were starting to outweigh the answers. This is where I am now. I have decided that I cannot, in good conscience, continue to accept ignorance as my position on so many matters. In fact, you may even recognize that defaulting to ignorance is not biblical. 1 Peter 3:15 says to “… always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess.” In hindsight I’m embarrassed to admit that I have allowed myself to be engaged in intellectual dishonesty by looking past these issues despite that fact that I was aware of, and in many cases quite familiar, with them. Now that I have decided that I am no longer content with ignorance, the doubts are coming at me like a storm and I am faced with a faith that is far weaker than at any time in my past.

So, I’ve started a blog. If you know me, you know how out of character this is. Like many engineers, I naturally shy away from social interaction and sharing my thoughts. I am a perennial wallflower. However, this journey has been going on for a while in my head and I realize that if I have something valuable in my head then I need to document it for future reference. I’ve forgotten enough to know that if I don’t record my findings then my memory will fail me. This blog is the record of my journey, a point of reference for myself and those who wish to know how I arrived at my worldview, whatever that may be.

At the time of this posting I haven’t yet revealed the magnitude of my doubt to anybody. I know that there’s no shame in doubting but I need some time to process these things before I bring relationships into the mix. If I tried to explain my thoughts to somebody right now it would be an incomprehensible jumble as all the different questions collided on their way out. My journey needs an organized backstory before I ask anybody else to participate in it. In fact, if you’re reading this now it may very well be because I’ve taken that step and pointed you here to understand where I’m coming from. Even so, this is also a publicly accessible blog. While I’m not yet ready to mix my doubts with my relationships, I recognize the value of “peer review”. I don’t know if anybody is even going to stumble upon this and offer any critiques of my ramblings, but I welcome the possibility. To quote Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so a person sharpens his friend.” I would be foolish to reject the insights and thoughts of others…I’m just not ready yet to do that with friends and family.

What am I doing?

I’m going to start facing these doubts and questions head on. I will not brush aside the difficult aspects of faith, or use “God’s ways are not our ways” to justify a comfortable ignorance. I’ve titled this blog “A Measure of Faith” as a play on the text of Romans 12:3, “For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.” First, I couldn’t agree more with the encouragement to “think with sober discernment”. That is exactly what I intend to do. Second, I am intrigued by the notion of faith as something quantifiable. Along those lines, I’ve decided to put a number on it – a measurement, if you will. Here’s the plan:

As I decide to tackle each topic, I will put together a post that reflects my attempt to describe and interpret it from at least two viewpoints: the Christian view and the naturalist view. I am defining these as:

  1. Christianity: Posits a supernatural power that has provided a revelation to humanity through the Christian bible.
  2. Naturalism: Does not assume a supernatural power and presumes that everything can be explained by natural means.

I realize that there are many more worldviews, but these two are my primary concerns and most other views are closely related to one of these. That is, most religious views will share many common points with Christianity and most non-theistic views will share many common points with naturalism. At the end of the post, I will assign a probability to each view that I present. This probability is a representation of my opinion on the validity of each particular view in light of my evaluation. I’m not under any illusion that this will be an objective measurement, nor do I intend it to be. Obviously, despite my best attempts, my inherent biases will play a large role in the evaluation and the resulting probabilities. There’s not much I can do about that. Ultimately, I am simply trying to quantify the validity of each view with respect to my interpretation of the available information. To me, a view is more valid if it does a better job of explaining the data while raising fewer additional questions. I don’t know how much I’ll actually stick to this recipe but that’s the general theme.

That is where I am and what I plan to do about it. Where I will be once this is through, I do not know, but I am quite certain that I will not be the same.