Thursday, October 05, 2006

What should skeptics think?

I was walking through the Student Life Center after lunch today, looking at random posters that were up on the bulletin boards. One of them caught my eye. It was titled:

Same-Sex Marriage
Public-Policy Making

What should Christians think?

So, this is the position of Christians in power, eh, that Christians need to be told what to think? For the self-proclaimed faithful, they're showing a surprising lack of faith in their own. Maybe they're afraid that if Christians start to think for themselves, they might realize some of the numerous problems with the religion.

This isn't a fluke occurence. A Google search on the specific phrase "What should Christians think?" gives 267 results (some of which are probably repeats, though). Christians are told what to think on a wide variety of subjects, from homosexuality to the Fourth of July. The only thing that should really be uniting Christians in their thoughts is Christianity itself, but a search for "What should Christians think about Christianity?" returns zero results. (Though once this post is up, you might get this when you try it out yourself.) I can't say for sure whether this is limited to Christianity or not, as I'd have to figure out translations into different languages for most other languages. A few stats that might be relevant, though:

"What should Jews think?" - 2 results
"What should Atheists think?" - 0 results
"What should skeptics think?" - 0 results
"What should Humanists think?" - 1 result
"What should Agnostics think?" - 0 results

Looks like it's the Christians that have the big problem here.

Now, a little story about my personal experiences with Christianity. My parents are both Christian, but my father is Catholic and my mother Anglican (though she's grown more Deist in the past years), so they couldn't decide on which form of Christianity to raise me and my sister in. So, we were brought up as just generic Christians, but religion was never a big part of our lives. We'd only go to church on holidays, and the only time we really studied the religion was when I had to know about it for the Cub Scouts (the version of the Boy Scouts for younger kids).

After one of the many moves of my childhood, I ended up going to an extremely crappy public school, where I spent an entire year learning absolutely nothing. My parents decided that it would be best for me if I went to a private school, and the only one available was a Catholic school. It was here that I finally became fully exposed to the religion. I only stayed there for half a year before we moved again, but the experiences there were very enlightening (or should I say "delightening"?) for me. I was about 9 or 10 at this time.

My naturally inquisitive nature led me to ask a lot of questions in class. The most frustrating one for the teacher was "How do you know that?" Picture, if you will, the following exchange:

Me: How do you know that?
Teacher: The Bible says so.
Me: How do you know the Bible is right?
Teacher: Because it was inspired by God.
Me: How do you know that?
Teacher: Because it says so.
Me: How do you know it's right?
Teacher: Because I have faith in it. You should, too, if you want to avoid going to Hell.

Circular logic backed up by an appeal to consequences. I couldn't name the logical fallacies at the time, but it didn't sit well with me. So, I was asked to believe things on faith. I was trying to be good, so I made an honest effort to do this. There was a problem, though. The things my gut told me were true didn't match up with what the Bible said. For instance, I was particularly fond of the idea of reincarnation, but this didn't sit well with the teacher. So, we had to base our beliefs off of faith, but my faith was wrong. It wasn't as if there was any evidence we could consult to settle the matter. I just had to think what they told me to think, and that was that. I didn't end up deconverting right then, but it left the seeds of doubt in my mind that would later sprout once I had the intellectual tools to analyse the religion properly.

So, let's go back to the title of this post: What should skeptics think? The answer here is that skeptics should think for themselves. Hell, everybody should think for themselves, but this is one of the defining characteristics of being a skeptic. You should be analysing all claims for yourself, even those of skeptics. If you go along with everything some skeptic says, then in the end, you're just another gullible sheep who follows a skeptic, and not one yourself.

And if there's something in this post or any other one of mine that, when you think about it, doesn't sit right with you, the "Leave a comment" link is right at the bottom. Use it.


Jeremy Pierce said...

A little charity please. Authoring a post with a title of the form "What should Christians think about X?" does not amount to telling people what to believe. If you look at the post in question from my blog, you can see why. What I do is argue for what Christian teachings imply, and that means that someone wanting to be a faithful Christian, following Christian views on other matters, should pay attention to my argument and on the basis of reason conclude what the arguments lead to. It's thus an appeal to reason, not some higher-than-thou dictation of what people should believe.

I suspect the same is true of the meeting you saw posters advertizing. although it's quite possible that it wasn't. I think it was probably a talk or discussion looking at Christian positions on other issues to see what they imply about the issue in question. That is not dictating to people what to think. It is giving an argument based on what the people already believe in favor of a position on another issue. Perhaps it isn't even that. Perhaps it's just leading a discussion to figure out what other people might come up with on the issue. I can easily see something with that title going that way

As for your second issue, "What should Christians think about Christianity?", it's just a very strange question that no one would ask. Of course Christians are going to think Christianity is correct, or they wouldn't be Christians. But you meant what Christians should think about more particular issues within Christianity. There are plenty of those discussions, such as the meaning of the atonement, the nature of the Trinity, the details of the overall plan of salvation in history, the nature of the church and its relation to Israel, the nature of God, and so on.

Those would seem to be included in what you're saying Christians don't discuss, but no one would put it in the linguistic form that you've put it in, so you won't find it by searching for the phrase you give. People would simply ask what the Bible teaches about it, what certain doctrines imply, or which theological views are correct. They wouldn't ask what Christians should think about them, because they're issues only Christians will be thinking about.

With the more general moral issues you're identifying, it makes perfect sense to ask what Christians should think about them. There's a particular account of the nature of the world and the meaning of our lives that Christianity gives, and it has some implications that affect discussions in ethics. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for me to ask what Christians should think about something, and it makes perfect sense to say that even while expecting people to think for themselves when evaluating the arguments I give. That's how arguments generally work.

Infophile said...

That is not dictating to people what to think. It is giving an argument based on what the people already believe in favor of a position on another issue.

In an ideal world, this might be true. One could take a group of people who share a set of postulates that they believe have accepted as true, and then make valid arguments premised on these postulates. The results of these arguments would then be things that everyone who agreed on the initial postulates should logically also agree on.

Unfortunately, things don't always happen that way in the real world. The first problem we face is that a group as diverse as Christians has surprisingly few postulates that they all agree on. Generalizing as much as I can, I think we can boil it down to the following (let me know if I missed something):

1. There exists a God (a being of supreme power and knowledge).

2. Jesus Christ was the Messiah and son (in some sense) of this God.

3. The teachings of Jesus Christ and God are contained in the Bible.

Beyond here it gets tricky. Is every word in the Bible literally true, or are metaphor, allegories, and fables used to teach lessons? What exactly is the Trinity (and the Holy Ghost, for that matter)? Were all the books of the Bible inspired by God, or was it only certain ones? Was the Bible corrupted by humans since it was originally written? Is it necessary to accept Jesus Christ to go to heaven, or is good living sufficient? These are questions that are debated between Christians to this day.

Now, I'll admit now that if you want to take a specific sect of Christianity that has a much larger set of shared postulates, there's a lot more you can say about what those people should think. But that's not Christians as a whole.

Then there's the problem of all the translations and interpretations of the Bible. With so many differing opinions here, it's next to impossible to make a valid argument based on Biblical verses that would garner no argument from some Christian.

So when you do try to make a generalization without taking into account all the differing opinions, you're in effect saying what Christians should believe. When you tell them to believe your particular version of the Bible and your particular interpretation of it, along with accepting it as literally true, this is an argument from authority. There's no line of logic that can lead someone to accept the Bible as being the infallible word of God (when you take into account all the errors and absurdities in it, the evidence is even against this), so this can't be an appeal to reason.

The best you can claim in the end is an appeal to reason assuming certain premises are true, when these premises are supported by an appeal to authority.

As for your second issue, "What should Christians think about Christianity?", it's just a very strange question that no one would ask.

Yeah, that part was written tongue-in-cheek, but that doesn't always come across well in writing.

But anyways, a question for you: Why do you suppose that this phrase shows up so much more often with Christians than with other groups who have shared values. For reference, I tried a couple more strings:

"What should scientists think?" - 1 result
"What should Muslims think?" - 2 results
"What should Moslems think?" - 1 result
"What should Americans think?" - 26 results

The latter is somewhat significant, but still less than 10% the number for Christians. All of the groups I've tried have their own sets of shared beliefs, some of which are much broader than those of Christians, yet Christians seem to be the ones who try to speak for what all of them should think.

Anonymous said...


Well at least you are consistent.

Anonymous said...

"There's no line of logic that can lead someone to accept the Bible as being the infallible word of God (when you take into account all the errors and absurdities in it, the evidence is even against this), so this can't be an appeal to reason."

And let me guess. You cannot think of one.

Drinking that Red Coolaid still I suppose.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Christians have an authoritative set of documents that they can reason about. These other groups you mention have no such set of documents, except Muslims, who do not read their scriptures in English and are far less frequently discussing theology in English, so that explains why you aren't turning up many searches there. I'm sure Muslims who are intellectually inclined are perfectly willing to ask what Muslims should think about certain issues. I'm just not expecting most of those conversations online to be in English.

Christians believe that there is an tradition passed down in the form of a scripture that guides us enough to give us some source but is not clear enough to preclude discussion, and therefore it amounts to a serious intellectual exercise to figure out what Christians ought to think given the biblical text that Christians consider authoritative.

Surely there are differences in how Christians take scripture, but those who are honest about how scripture presents itself will see it as taking itself to be God's revelation. Those who take it seriously in that way are the ones I refer to as Christians. It seems to me to be a mistake to count Bishop Spong as a genuine Christian given that he doesn't even believe in God.

Christians will thus engage in the exercise of figuring out what Christians ought to think based on the premise that scripture provides a starting point but not a complete picture of all the implications. That exercise involves giving a biblical theology that encompasses all that scripture has to say, figuring out how to put together a view of how the old covenant of the Torah relates to the new covenant in Jesus and so on. There are plenty of hermeneutical issues that people will deal with, but that's exactly the kind of thing I regularly look at in my blog postings. I will then give arguments why I think the hermeneutical perspective I'm offering is the one that is best suited to what the texts themselves have to say as a whole, and therefore when I put it under the category of what Christians should think I have given an argument for why I think Christians should look at scripture in this way. That assumes that people might not agree, since I wouldn't be giving an argument if I thought all would agree.

There's no line of logic that can lead someone to accept the Bible as being the infallible word of God (when you take into account all the errors and absurdities in it, the evidence is even against this), so this can't be an appeal to reason.

You're obviously unfamiliar with basic evangelical apologetics. I haven't seen an error in the Bible. I've seen imprecision, but the authors knew it was imprecise. I've seen historical assertions that can't be proved and that naturalists would assume to be false (but that's an assumption). I've seen different accounts with different details that people have long offered ways to reconcile. I've seen textual corruptions that don't indicate what the original text said. But I haven't seen any unambiguous and clearly demonstrable errors, and I haven't seen anything that constitutes an absurdity without assuming naturalism from the outset, something no one should do in a discussion with people who are not naturalistic in their assumptions.

As for the inerrancy of scripture, it's absolutely clear to anyone who has paid much attention to what the scriptures say that they present themselves that way. I don't know how anyone can read Psalm 119 in a way that allows for God's word to convey falsehood in the way that those who deny inerrancy would hold. Now this doesn't constitute a proof, since someone can always deny that Psalm 119 is saying false things, but I have a hard time accepting someone's claim to be a Christian if they don't at least want to accept what the Bible says at face value on matters of doctrine, and this is a matter of doctrine.

Then there's the problem of all the translations and interpretations of the Bible. With so many differing opinions here, it's next to impossible to make a valid argument based on Biblical verses that would garner no argument from some Christian.

Yes. So what? Making an argument assumes people might disagree with you. And? I'm not sure what your point is. You're arguing against those who would argue as if they are the only view out there, but you're doing it against someone who is not claiming that. I'm not saying (and I didn't say in my post) that no one would disagree with what I think Christians should believe about the Fourth of July. I was giving an argument based on biblical principles and moral philosophy for a certain view of the Fourth of July that I think is the biblical view, one Christians should adopt. The fact that I was trying to argue this point against the majority view that I think is a different view demonstrates that I already do think people will disagree. How is it even relevant to point out that my argument would not be accepted by every Christian? That's the nature of arguments. People don't always accept them.

Infophile said...

Alright, I see the point you're making in your first few paragraphs (Though minor note: The Jews have the Old Testament, though I guess you could explain their lower number by their lower population). I guess my problem is more with the overall concept of this.

If the Bible is the inerrant word of God, then I believe that it should be up to individual Christians to read it and make their own interpretations. If it's not clear enough, then it seems that God did a poor job inspiring the people who wrote it. He could have easily patched all this up and made perfectly clear his wishes on every matter, but for some reason he didn't. To me, this simply says that he doesn't exist, but to many Christians, it says that he intends for them to take it into their own hands to interpret his word and enforce it on others.

This has led to the church's attitude towards the laymen to be very authoritave, expecting complete obedience and faith. This even overrides the Bible on many occasions, such as the Vatican's long-held claim of the existence of Limbo (which they've now turned around *rolls eyes*).

But it's not just the church that does it these days. Everyone with an outlet can go and say what Christians should think about any subject. If all they did this in good faith of what they believed the Bible said and intended (as it seems you do), this wouldn't be much of a problem. Unfortunately, many pick and choose verses that support them.

Take the argument against homosexuality. Many people claiming Christians should be against it point to Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to show the Bible is against it. Reading these, it's obvious that it is. But then, why don't they take other verses from the same book with equal weight? According to Leviticus, the following things are all abominations unto God, similar to homosexuality (taken from

-Clams, oysters, crabs, lobsters, and shrimp are abominations to God. 11:10-12
-Four-legged fowls are abominations. 11:20
-"Every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth shall be an abomination." 11:41
-"Whatsoever goeth upon the belly, and whatsoever goeth upon all four, or whatsoever hath more feet ... are an abomination." 11:42

We've pretty much ruled out everything but monopeds, bipeds, and tripeds here as being abominations. Why aren't these people out massacring most animals? Or what about babies who crawl, are they abominations?

Oh, and here's a big one: Priests must not "make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard." (21:5) So priests most definately can't be clean-shaven. You don't see many people speaking out about this. Maybe if I see someone writing an article on "What should Christians think about clean-shaven priests?" I won't get so annoyed with "What should Christians think about homosexuality?"

As for contradictions in the Bible, I think it's best I just point you to what some other atheists have already written. The Skeptic's Annoted Bible has a long list. Ebonmuse also has an article (plus response-to-response articles) about some contradictions that are particularly hard to harmonize.