It's been a long time since we've had an apologetics post. I have a whole list of bad news items that I have thought of writing about under the all-too-apt heading of What's Wrong With the World, but instead, I've decided to write today about issues that are perennial.
Long-time readers know that I call myself an evidentialist in Christian apologetics. (See also here and here.) This means that I think that Christian faith both should be and can be based solidly on available evidence. I'm eclectic in this regard. I think St. Thomas Aquinas was an evidentialist as well. While my own special area of interest and focus has been on historical arguments for Christianity (e.g., for the reliability of the Gospels and the occurrence of the resurrection), and while I am not convinced by all of the purely philosophical arguments for the existence of God that are sometimes proposed, I am by no means hostile or opposed to a priori, metaphysical arguments. To the extent that they work, they are evidence as well. The more the merrier.
But lurking in the background of the evidentialist position is the following consideration: Is there some sense in which a person should not believe something beyond its support by the evidence that he has? Do we say that a person should apportion the strength of his credence to the strength of the evidence?
Let me hasten to add that a "yes" answer to this does not preclude a) the possession of maximal, foundational evidence for some particular proposition which is not inferred from anything else (such as his own existence) or b) the possession of and reliance on evidence that is, strictly speaking, available only to oneself (such as one's sensory experiences).
Strictly speaking, stating that in some sense Christian faith "should" be based on evidence does not commit oneself to this more global statement about apportioning one's strength of belief to the strength of the evidence, but they go rather naturally together. In that case, one's opposition to all forms of fideism or belief beyond evidence in the area of religion is an instance of a broader principle.
It gets tricky to define the precise sense of this "should," and that is partly why I have used the phrase "in some sense." After all, not all belief is voluntary, and even irrational belief sometimes seems morally excusable if it has been deliberately encouraged by one's teachers from one's youth upwards. Not everyone thinks explicitly about whether he is believing things reasonably or unreasonably, and it doesn't seem like everyone ought to do so or is even capable of doing so. But there certainly seems to be something suboptimal about irrational belief.
Suppose that I water down the "should" here and, at least for now, defend only the following proposition:
If you are sufficiently reflective to realize that you have been holding some belief irrationally or arationally, with a strength of conviction beyond what is warranted by any evidence that you actually have, you ought to change your credence level for that belief.
This immediately raises the following disturbing consideration: Suppose that a person--call him Joe--has been raised in a fideistic form of Christianity. Suppose for the sake of the argument that Joe has been deliberately taught that he should believe in God "just because," that he should trust the Bible "just because it's the Bible," that he should not look for any further argument, and indeed that to do so is to show himself weak in faith. Suppose that Joe has been taught to rely on the fact that he thinks he can feel Jesus living in his heart, rather as Mormons are taught to rely upon the "burning in the bosom." Needless to say, Joe has been given no apologetics teaching whatsoever in his church or by his parents.
Now suppose that Joe wakes up one fine morning and says to himself, "This is ridiculous. I have no more reason to believe that Christianity is true than any adherent of any religion incompatible with Christianity has to believe his religion. I've been hanging on to my Christianity just because it is part of my individual identity and the identity of the community I am a part of. And I'm even willing to lay down my life for this set of theological beliefs! Why am I thinking this way, when I don't even know if any of this is true?"
Joe is having a crisis of faith, and he's having it after a lifetime (though perhaps a rather young lifetime) of being entirely unprepared for it. Indeed, one might say that he has been anti-prepared. When he goes to his pastor, let's suppose that he is told that he just needs to accept that the Bible is the Word of God, just needs to cling to Jesus more closely, and that his doubts come from Satan.
Not only is that unlikely, psychologically, to help Joe in this crisis, it is questionable as to whether it should help Joe in this crisis. His questions are reasonable, given the absence of any defense he has ever been given for belief in his community's holy book and theological commitments.
But what am I saying? It sounds for a moment here like I'm saying that Joe should apostasize!
Considering that I am, after all, a Christian, that I want Joe (which is to say, all the real-life people like Joe) to go to heaven, and that I seriously doubt that he's going to go to heaven if he just becomes an agnostic or an atheist and goes through the rest of his life explicitly rejecting belief in the existence of God and/or the tenets of Christianity, that would seem to be a pretty shocking position to take.
My answer, however, is no. I do not recommend that Joe apostasize, and I certainly don't say that he should do so.
The first reason for this is that Joe should consider that he may have more reason than he realizes, and upon reflection, I think he will find that he does. The fact that those in his background have taught him to disregard evidence and to believe on subjective grounds does not mean that he does not have evidence. If a man were taught from childhood that he ought to believe that his father is loving and good without evidence, it would not mean that he would have no evidence if he stopped to think about the matter.
So it is for the existence of God. Joe knows of the existence of the world around him, and probably knows at least something of its appearance of orderliness and design. He knows of the existence of his own mind. To be sure, naturalism has its own attempts to account for the existence of these things, but perhaps Joe can see (even if only dimly as yet) for himself that these are unsatisfactory. He knows of the existence of morality and the appearance of meaning in life, which gives him a reason to think, at least, that there must be more to life than atoms bumping against each other in the void. All of these considerations tend strongly against either atheism or agnosticism concerning the existence of God himself, though they certainly (as I am envisaging it) need to be refined and strengthened in Joe's understanding.
As for the more specific doctrines of Christianity and of the monotheism of Judaism on which it was founded, the existence of the books of the Bible is, at a minimum, a datum. Without considering them at the outset as holy books, one still can ask where they came from and what the best explanation is for their contents.
At this point, things become a bit delicate, for Joe's own background, as I imagine it, has taught him nothing about how to evaluate the plausibility of such works.
But here I want to bring in the second point: Joe should not apostasize even from Christianity (much less from theism), because the evidence for Christianity is available, and Joe himself can find it.
If Joe were kept locked up on an island without access to the wider world by his pastor and parents, then he might have to pray desperately to a God about whose attributes he is now (perhaps against his own will) uncertain to help him get out and find more information. And, to be clear, I believe that God does send light to those who sincerely seek it and who, God knows, will accept that light if given it. Jeremiah 29:13 applies here, I believe: "You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart." Meanwhile, even Joe-locked-on-an-island can keep reading the Bible and can, hopefully, notice for himself some of the internal evidences that give the Gospels, for example, verisimilitude.
But things are not that dire in the real world. Joe has access to books and, presumably, to the Internet. To be sure, he could just as easily wander onto a "myther" web site on the Internet as onto William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith site or Apologetics315, but the fact remains that information is out there on questions like, "Why should I believe that the events in the Gospels took place?" and "How is the Bible different from other putatively holy books?"
Moreover, it's a pretty safe bet that, despite his fideistic upbringing, Joe has some friends or friends-of-friends who will recommend some good evidential material to him (perhaps, e.g., Lee Strobel's popular apologetics books) if he makes his doubts known, not only to his own immediate community but to the Christian community more widely.
This brings me to the importance of the inquiry. C.S. Lewis argues,
Here is a door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either that’s true, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal “sell” on record. Isn’t it obviously the job of every man to try to find out which, and then to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug? (“Man or Rabbit?,” in God in the Dock, 111–112. HT to John DePoe for this reference.)
Since the question of whether Christianity is true or false is of such great moment, any light abandonment of the claims of Christianity, without doing due diligence, is epistemically irresponsible. The commitment to truth itself (an important part of the evidentialist position) means that we are bound to pursue truth and, indeed, that it can be a test of character for a man to be expected to make such an investigation rather than settling for a shallow and easy agnosticism.
The evidentialist is (I believe) bound to disagree with the Pascalian recommendation that one induce oneself to believe Christianity purely for reasons of utility. But it is crucially different to say that one should vigorously seek to discover whether there is good evidence for Christianity, and that one should do so because the stakes of missing out on the knowledge of God are so high. And, since I believe that there is such evidence, and that it is not hidden, a person who (like Joe) comes to have doubts upon reflection but who then engages in such a search can be rewarded with a Christian faith that is confidently based on fact.
In the end, those of us who watch struggles of faith from the other side--that is, from within Christianity--must have independent reason to have confidence in the justice of God. That is true whether or not one is an evidentialist. Indeed, if one is not, one must nonetheless account for the fact that God apparently "gives" some people a non-evidential confidence in Christianity but does not "give" this to others, since atheists and agnostics, after all, do exist. No position on evidence and apologetics offers a "get out of questions free" card concerning divine justice and salvation, since there will always be those who, it appears, never had a "real chance," whether one construes that chance in terms of receiving the best available evidence, the right upbringing, religious experiences, or firm feelings of confidence and assurance induced by the Holy Spirit.
For the evidentialist Christian, the confidence in the ultimate justice of God comes from the reasons that we do have to believe that God, who is by definition absolutely just and good, exists, loves us, and has revealed himself to us. It is, moreover, useful to see that the position does not create an actual contradiction--for example, it does not mean that a person in Joe's position both should and should not believe in God--and does not lead us to recommend apostasy to those who have been Christians and are now in the throes of mental crisis.