A Discussion I'm Having With a Scholar Friend on Facebook

Last Update

See what you think below. His name will be kept private unless he wants me to reveal it.

I had first asked about the probability of Messianic prophecies being interpreted correctly in the New Testament, and of the probability of Christianity.

Jan said:
It's tough only if you approach texts in a distinctly modern way. Understanding that narratives speak of worldviews and texts reference one another within a cultural tradition, the interpretive task looks rather different. People like Tom Wright and John Sailhamer have made this idea clear to me.

You'll also know that terms like "probable" in this vein are rather harder to assess than, say, calculating the probability of drawing to an inside straight. Historically folks have assessed the probability of theisms differently. I find the comprehensive case for Christian theism to be rational and satisfactory in a holistic way. You don't. The history of thought doesn't make me expect a breakthrough on either side of this debate anytime soon.
John W. Loftus said:
Jon D. Levenson, Professor at Harvard Divinity School in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and Civilizations, offered a great definition of what a critical scholar is when he wrote they “are prepared to interpret the text against their own preferences and traditions, in the interest of intellectual honesty.” See page 3 of his book The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.

I hope we can agree on that.
Jan said:
It begs the question of self-awareness, perpetuating the myth of the objective scholar, the romantic notion of the iconoclastic individualist. My view of human nature, including my own nature, is rather less optimistic than Dr. Levenson's. I like the goal of objectivity. I doubt it every time it's claimed.
John W. Loftus said:
Hmmmm. Well it's one thing to strive for objectivity. It's another thing entirely to engage in special pleading to defend something you were raised to believe in a Christian culture and/or by parents who taught you what to believe. We must realistically entertain the PROBABILITY that we are wrong. Do I? Yes, most emphatically. I may be wrong in what I affirm. I doubt very much I'm wrong in what I deny, since the denial is the easy part when it comes to a multitude of competing religious claims. That's what I mean when I say there is a difference between smelling a rotten egg and laying a good one. The smelling is the easy part and we all do it, even if we cannot lay a good egg. And no, atheism is not a religion nor is it a worldview. If it is, then not collecting stamps is a hobby. ;-)

The atheist is the skeptic who doubts all religious viewpoints. I'm ultimately an agnostic. But precisely because I'm an agnostic I affirm atheism. In fact, I'm a protest atheist. I'm protesting the lack of good evidence and God's care even should some supernatural force or being exist. If God does exist then a distant God is no different from none at all.

An atheist is someone who normally arrives at his position through the process of elimination. That too describes me.
Jan said:
Do you know who is "engaging in special pleading to defend something you were raised to believe in a Christian culture and/or by parents who taught you what to believe" and who isn't? Conversely, do you know who is engaging in special pleading to >attack< the same, and who isn't? From what standpoint of objectivity do you offer any such description in any specific instance? When you say, "That too describes me," do you not mean, "That is how I describe myself"? Is that an objective description?Are these rhetorical questions?

John W. Loftus said:
Jan, no one, and I mean no one, who attacks objectivity as much as you are compelled to do can turn around and claim with a straight face his views on such matters as faith are objectively correct! You are a closet agnostic, or a postmodern. Welcome to my world. Otherwise you really do not mean to attack objectivity at all. You only attack it when someone claims to have it whom you disagree with, which applies a double standard to your opponent's claims. The fact is that I don't claim any kind of objectivity at all, even if I strive for it! That's precisely the reason why I'm an agnostic, you see. So you're preaching to the choir. And in so doing you've actually shown me that you are engaged in special pleading, my friend. You are in denial. ;-)

Here's your dilemma: Either you affirm a kind of objectivity that others who disagree do not have, or you say we're in the same mostly subjective boat. The first horn is that you have a double standard. The second horn is that you should be an agnostic.

I hope I'm not taking you away from more important things. Feel free at any time to ignore me. Now would be a good time BTW ;-)
Jan said:
Between the claim to superior objectivity, which I think your rhetoric implies, and the despair at knowing anything at all lies the ground on which we make rational (warranted) decisions but disagree. What you miss in my deliberately irreverent rhetoric, which you style an attack on objectivity, is my resentment at the way you frame the question. There's nothing inherently superior or especially objective in denying something you used to believe. Levenson's (typical) remark doesn't identify objectivity; it simply affirms rebellion, which can be a kind of subjective reaction different from traditionalistic adherence but no less subjective for being different. You, like my Calvinist friends, like to posture your position as inherently better informed or more intellectually honest than the opposite number. I think that's silly. Do not discount the degree to which the atheist subculture is infused with romantic exaltation of the courageous, iconoclastic individualist, passing out rewards for displaying such a persona.

As to special pleading, I think you're again assuming a set of rules that others won't agree to. Don't bait me by saying I'm not striving for objectivity. I'm simply reminding us of the limits of our so-called objectivity and the suspiciousness of any claim to objectivity that arises out of biography.

Now, differently and briefly. We both know that in the history of thought, (Christian) theism has always been challenged but remains resilient. We both know that people make decisions and commitments for a whole host of reasons, many of which are opaque, including to the person who makes the decisions and commitments. My point is twofold: history suggests that Christian theism is controversial but not intellectually irresponsible, and experience suggests that one does well not to trumpet his objectivity.

Am I objective? No, but neither is anyone else. Does that make rationality impossible? No again, just difficult and properly infused with humility. Is it irrational to believe in the Christian God? No, just very controversial. You or I could be wrong. Neither of us is inherently more objective in any way that we could confirm by objective means, however.

To go back to your remark about stamp collecting. First I say thanks for clarifying your nonbelief in the way that I've heard other agno-atheists do so. Second I observe that a-phatelists don't write books telling stamp collectors that their hobby is stupid and that stamps are simply worthless slips of paper if people don't attach value to them. It always makes me wonder why people care so much about something they find irrelevant. I know, I know: it does great harm to the people who believe it. Well, why care about those people?
John W. Loftus said:
I honestly didn’t intend to become your friend and then use it to argue with you. I appreciate getting to know other scholars and I wish you the best.

But don’t get me wrong. I am not a subjectivist nor a postmodern thinker. I do, however, think we can convince ourselves to believe in most anything. Two examples in my own life illustrate this. As a teen I found an interesting book by Frank Edwards on UFO’s. I read it and then several like it. So I became convinced there were UFO’s because what a person reads or experiences shapes what he thinks. Later, having graduated from Great Lakes Christian College, I was a conservative in every respect. But I had not yet studied the Biblical feminist arguments. A graduate from Emmanuel School of Religion presented the case and recommended some books which convinced me of that position even though I was a conservative in every other area. It was because of his influence and the books I first read on the topic that convinced me of that non-conservative position which was inconsistent with everything else I believed.

So while I don’t think subjectivism is the case I do think we are all far less objective then anyone wants to admit. This leads us to skepticism about that which we want to believe and supports Levenson’s comment on what honest critical scholarship entails. To claim he is advocating rebellion is unwarranted. Imagine a scientist in a conference who cannot convince his peers of his findings resorting to that as an explanation for why they reject them. Then you’ll see what I mean. That’s an ad hominem attack which has nothing to do with the evidence or lack of it.

So I’m not claiming you do not strive for objectivity. In fact I’m not claiming anything about you personally since I don’t know what you think. I’m claiming emphatically that we human beings all fail in being objective when there isn’t a mutually agreed upon reliable test to adjudicate our differences. We’re all woefully inadequate at being objective. Dismally inadequate. That's why science is the best antidote to wishful thinking.

Now please don't go off denouncing science, either, which seems to be what believers are forced into doing. You do not doubt the findings of science in a host of areas. Do you want to denounce astronomy, plate tectonics, computer science, mechanics, chemistry, rocket science, etc? No. You accept its results in every single area except in those areas you think the Bible speaks about. So I merely have to ask you once again to defend the double standard you must have to accept your faith. Why do you accept science and even appeal to it except when it comes to what ancient superstitious barbaric people wrote in a pre-scientific age? Have you recently read Judges 19-21? I know that text is a narrative one which merely describes the barbaric actions of people rather than a prescriptive one. But my question is why I should ever listen to anything these ancient barbaric people wrote on morality or God or the universe and its beginnings. These people have no intellectual or moral standing to have any claim to tell me what to think or to do.

I do what I do in order to help others because I care that others don’t waste their education and their lives in pursuing a dead end. I wish someone would’ve told me in my early years. I may have pursued a lucrative career instead. And like Dr. Hector Avalos I say that since I spent so much time studying these things it would be a waste not to share what I eventually learned. If every person who came to the same conclusions I did would walk away and not share what they learned then Christianity would be flourishing (think Kantian Categorical Imperative here). I need no further justification for doing what I’m doing. I’m certainly not an angry person. Who would I be angry at? Are you angry at Allah by arguing against Islam (if you did)?

Jan said:
I do not reject science, nor do I accept science in everything except what the Bible says. I don't think it provides "a . . . reliable test to adjudicate our differences" on all matters. The boundaries of science are more intensely debated than the boundaries of India and Pakistan, but there are boundaries nonetheless. Science can't adjudicate every question, and even those questions that it can adjudicate are hardly settled in an instant by applying "science." What you say smacks of logical positivism to me, and I'm certainly done with that, as are others.

Still, I appreciate your words about subjectivity, and your statement that you are not a postmodernist. I am postmodern insofar as I reckon with the reality of subjectivity in every statement, including the scientific. I do not despair of objectivity but I try to be aware of subjectivity.

Thanks also for acknowledging how little you know about what motivates me or exactly what I think. One of these exchanges soon may include less assumptions on that score.

My point (yet again) about your citation of Levenson is that it suggests that those who find against their belief system are somehow more objective than those who don't, while I observe that one can be subjectively motivated by a desire to rebel (anger at daddy? at the nuns in parochial school? at the seventh commandment?) as by true objectivity. But I guess that along the way you've acknowledged the problem of subjectivity, so we can stop bragging about whose objectivity is bigger.

Sharing what you've learned is noble, but why be noble towards others? I suppose you can choose to be so, but why give a rip at all? Is it objective to be sentimental about others' well being?
John W. Loftus said:
You have a way with words! Yes, “The boundaries of science are more intensely debated than the boundaries of India and Pakistan.” But there can be no disputing that methodological naturalism as a method is the defining hallmark of science. So the question is why you yourself apply that same method in every area of your life except when it comes to studying the Bible which forms the basis of your beliefs? I think that is a double standard. Since that method has been so very fruitful in every area you should consider using it to study the Bible too, just like you would use it to study the Koran or the book of Mormon. You assume these books were written by men and not God. Working with that assumption provides some significant insights and better conclusions than the God hypothesis.

In areas where science cannot adjudicate any given question then we should doubt any answer to that question as agnostics. What alternative method do you propose if not? One need not be a logical positivist to do this, which like you I agree is a dead issue.

My point about Levenson is that we should be skeptical of any conclusion that confirms what we believe since we all desire to confirm our prior held beliefs. That we do is a fact. I think what Levenson is saying is a responsible way of doing research even if we are woefully inadequate at doing this. I see no reason from what you’ve written not to seek to do what Levenson wants us to do given the pyschological studies suggesting we all seek a reduction to cognitive dissonance.

Is it objective to be sentimental about others' well being? Sure it is. Think Kantian Categorical Imperative again. Dr. David Eller dispenses once and for all (I think) this whole notion that Christianity provides the basis for objective moral standards anyway, in my edited book The Christian Delusion.
Jan said:
Why should methodological naturalism be applied to areas that are outside the bounds of science? If there is a god, the existence of that god is not a valid object of scientific inquiry, right? Methodological naturalism assumes the point to be proved in that discussion, or at the very least sets what might be an unreasonably high threshold of proof. But that's old stuff.

By the way, I don't think that Christianity is the only way to establish morality. I was just curious as to your desire to share your insights with others. Categorical imperative is fine with me. Just curious.

Of course I understand Levenson's point, and yours. I simply make the contrasting point that a person's objectivity is still very much in question even if he claims to be doing something that runs against his present or prior belief system. Abbie Hoffman wasn't objective as a Yippie because he was born to the upper middle class. An atheist is not objective because he was raised a Christian. My former-atheist colleague is not objective because he is now a devout Christian and biblical scholar. You can't not think about pink elephants if given the task.

By the way, I affirm that Christianity is wishful thinking. I don't think it is merely wishful thinking, or irrationally wishful thinking. There's the mischief.
John W. Loftus said:
Methodological naturalism can be applied to the Bible. Think philology here. James D.G. Dunn argues that it would be flying in the face of overwhelming evidence to argue against the fact that the Pentateuch was written by a lengthy process which has nothing to do with whether there is a God or not. And Raymond Brown argued the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke cannot be reconciled regardless of whether God can inspire the Bible or not.

If there is a God, the existence of that God should indeed be open to scientific investigation. Why not? After all, science starts with the five senses and if by using them we cannot experience God then how else could we know he exists, especially if he demands that we conclude he does. And if we cannot learn that God exists from science (archaeology, history as a science, psychology, investigation of miracles and prophecy) then we can safely ignore him. What kind of intelligent being would demand that we believe and not offer any scientific evidence for his existence? And no, religious experience cannot count for there is no objective scientific evidence that all people have it or that those who do have it come to the same theological conclusions from having it.

And if you affirm that Christianity is wishful thinking, then you of all people should treat your inherited faith with the same level of skepticism as you treat the faiths of others. This expresses my Outsider Test for Faith. If you don't do this then you are once again holding to a double standard.
Jan said:
Your arguments for applying a scientific test to the existence of God don't deal with the obvious way that methodological naturalism excludes the possibility of God. Your rhetoric assumes that science is an obviously superior way of knowing.

If for a variety of reasons, one concludes that theism is likely, and for additional reasons that Christian theism is the most likely (e.g., because of its impressive explanatory power regarding human experience in the world in all dimensions, including the empirical but not limited to it), the question for me is whether such a decision has warrant. I find that it's been proved satisfactorily that it does. In fact, I think it has more warrant than the idea that I must know first, last and only by science, not least when among the things that such a theism can explain is why a human can do science and even the philosophy of science that justifies it.
John W. Loftus said:
You said: "Your rhetoric assumes that science is an obviously superior way of knowing." Yes, that's correct. What's the alternative and how reliable is it given the diversity of religious beliefs around the world? Be honest here. What is the alternative? Now don't get me wrong. I think it's rational to believe. I just think what you believe is not probable at all to say the least. In fact, I'm so sure you're wrong I'm willing to risk Pascal's Wager on it. What I'm unsure of is which view is correct, hence agnosticism.

Nonetheless, if you can be made to believe most anything if exposed to it for a prolonged period of time then your judgment that Christianity has warrant cannot be any more objective than anything else you believe when there is no scientific evidence for it. And so why would you spend your life understanding it, articulating it, or defending it when at best your faith is based on wishful thinking? Strange that.
*Last Update*

Jan said:
Yes, methodological naturalism has its defenders. The defense is old and has proved to be unpersuasive for many. It is also not scientific.

You do seem to allow some nonscientific ways of knowing, like basing ethics on the categorical imperative, which has little to do with science. Science alone counts, except when it doesn't.

Still, whatever. There are no surprises here for me, and probably not for you either. You think you have defeaters for Christian theism. I've heard them before and don't find them persuasive. You were once impressed with arguments for Christian theism but now find them unpersuasive. That's where we started yesterday and where we are today, to no one's surprise.
John said:
Jan, I do allow some nonscientific ways of knowing, yes. It’s just that the scientific method based in methodological naturalism is the surest way to knowledge such that anything lacking that support has less credibility. I think the human sciences can help us know what is right and good too (i.e., smoking is bad; democracy is good, rape is wrong if we want a free society). That’s a digression but I’m sure I could give it a robust defense quite easily. In any case you mischaracterize my position on science. You don’t even try to understand it. I’m philosophically rather than scientifically oriented. I understand the limits of science very well and admitted so earlier (“the boundaries”). I’m not some two-bit atheist thinker who does not understand the issues. But of that I can forgive you since you really haven’t met the likes of me before. You can see for yourself the high praise people on both sides are saying about my book in the link offered below.

BTW the categorical imperative does not apply to all ethical questions. It can’t, and from what I understand Kant himself didn’t think so. Like many thinkers I’m an eclectic on ethics. Some issues are best dealt with by this imperative while others are not. I stand squarely in the happiness tradition of Aristotle. I am a moral realist. Look it up. I think we can know what makes people happy and then claim that since holistic happiness is an end in and of itself therefore the pursuit of it is ethical, moral, good and right.
At this point we discussed personal stuff.