Responding to Rauser On the Wildly Improbable Christian Faith

Dr. Rauser fancies himself as a Christian intellectual who seeks to straighten the rest of us crooked people out. We’re bent out of shape, you see. He’s gonna fix us. ‘Cause we need fixed. He wrote a review of my chapter in The End of Christianity titled, “Christianity is wildly improbable.” I had not read a word of Rauser's review until lately, after he practically begged me to comment on it. He shouldn’t oughta do that. ;-) Since I said I would comment, here goes.

Before beginning you can read his review here. I have not read any of the comments afterward.

First off, Rauser probably didn’t expect that I too have John Leith’s Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed. (Westminster John Knox, 1982). Just now I flipped inside it and immediately found The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) where it says God created the world and all things visible and invisible “in the space of six days.” (p. 199). In any case, he missed the point of my exercise with the ten creedal affirmations. I was placing various Christianities on a continuum scale that range from being improbable to wildly improbable. So it doesn’t matter that I didn’t refer to any one creed. I could have, but there are plenty of unwritten creeds that are equally binding, and he knows this.

My point was that “Any professing Christian who literally believes more than five of them has a wildly improbable faith (and that’s being very generous). And any professing Christian who literally believes them all has an incredibly bizarre faith.” (77)

Such a statement isn’t meant to argue my case. It just lets readers know which type of Christianity I take aim at the most in my chapter. So there is no argument here from personal incredulity at all.

Then Rauser participates in what I call Definitional Apologetics over the words “ordinary” and “extraordinary” (and later with “naturalism”), with no real benefit for apologetics. I don’t care to quibble about these things. I want to talk in terms of snakes that talk, axe heads that float, the shadow of a sun backing up, incarnations of a God/man, the magical properties of blood that forgives sins, resurrections from the dead, and handkerchiefs or pools that heal people.

When it comes to extraordinary events like miracles, Rauser claim that “actuality trumps probability.” In this context such a claim is, well, stupid (sorry). Does he not know, has he not heard? These issues are always epistemological ones. Yes, if magical mandrakes really increased Jacob’s flock of sheep then it doesn’t matter what the odds were, they did. Yes, if a fish swallowed a man who lived to tell about it then it doesn’t matter what the odds were, it happened. Yes, if Jesus healed a man born blind from birth then it doesn’t matter what the odds were, he did. For every event there is, after all, a non-zero probability that it could happen. So if these things really happened then they beat the odds, the incredible nearly unassailable odds.

So? How do we know they happened? How does Rauser know? One could believe in Yahweh, believe Yahweh does miracles, believe in Yahweh’s Old Testament, and still not believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The overwhelming numbers of Jews at the time believed all of these things and did not conclude Jesus was raised from the dead. Orthodox Jews still believe these things and do not believe Jesus was raised from the dead. Why should anyone believe he did if they didn’t, and still don’t? In fact, Jesus could have been raised from the dead by God and there would still not be enough evidence to conclude that he did. This last point escapes the deluded mind. The historical tools available to us don’t allow it, for historical evidence is paltry evidence. We cannot interview any so-called witnesses. What if some of them recanted? We’ll never know. Myths about their lives simply cannot be believed. But Rauser has not read where I make this case most forcefully, in chapter 7 of Why I Became an Atheist (2nd edition). That chapter is probably the most unique one to be found in an atheist book. Perhaps others will read it though. I think it all but destroys any hope for historical apologetics.

Rauser takes issue with my “Greater Extraordinary Claims Scale” chart where I place on a continuum the views of atheists, agnostics, pantheists, deists, Jews, Muslims and Christians. Since agnosticism describes the “default position” (as I said in my Introduction) I included it as a midway point between the hard atheist position to the wildly improbably ten creedal affirming Christian (as I had articulated earlier). I do happen to think that affirming there is a supernatural being or force is an extraordinary claim, something you would expect him to deny.

When it comes to pantheism, Rauser argues that it isn’t a simpler view than others, as a way of disrupting the flow of the chart. He rhetorically asks, “if extraordinary claims are those which appeal to supernatural beings (or forces) then wouldn’t it follow that a view which says everything that exists is a supernatural being is maximally extraordinary?

Here he quibbles over what one considers to be a simple claim. I take it that the claim “all is One” is simple in that it makes only one extraordinary claim. It doesn’t make others. It has no miracle claims other than this one.

Rauser’s biggest substantial objection is that the hard atheist who asserts that no supernatural force or being exists at all is making a set of extraordinary claims too. And he offers up an “equivalent list of ‘creedal statements’ for this type of atheist, the “typical naturalist.”
1) The universe came into existence uncaused out of nothing.
2) The information in the DNA double helix was generated through undirected, non-intelligent processes.
3) Consciousness is supervenient on the brain and as a result our minds are not causually effectual in the world.
4) Morality is a social construction.
5) There is no meaning to life even if people can identify meanings in life.
Then he rhetorically asks:
What is the likelihood of a universe springing into existence uncaused out of nothing? What is the likelihood of DNA arising through undirected natural processes? What is the likelihood of 1) multiplied by 2)? Who could possibly believe something so implausible?

The naturalist of course finds recourse to the actuality trumps probability principle. They believe DNA has, in fact, been generated by natural processes so as statistically unlikely as this may be they accept it. Naturalists have also often appealed to actuality trumps probability as an explanation for the enormous implausiblity of a universe leaping into existence uncaused.
Whew! That’s a lot to answer for, isn’t it? These are legitimate objections that demand detailed answers. They are the type of objections that keep believers of all stripes and colors into their respective religious faiths and cultures. I cannot hope to disabuse believers of these objections here, although I face them head on in my writings and refer to others who have written on these subjects.

However, one doesn’t need to be a hard atheist to reject Rauser’s religious faith. All one has to do is be an Orthodox Jew. An Orthodox Jew would not find these objections problematic at all. An agnostic wouldn’t either, nor would a soft atheist who simple says “there isn’t sufficient evidence to believe but I’m open to the question.” Atheists in this sense would be Bayesians in our thinking, who think exclusively in terms of probabilities. We cannot do that unless we also consider the alternative hypotheses in our calculus. We compare hypotheses with their alternatives and conclude that our hypothesis is more probable than Rauser’s hypothesis, or any of the others.

At this point I should say a great deal about how science solves problems while faith solves nothing, but I’ve said that before to deaf ears.

In any case, let me just offer an analogy. Imagine a room where there are twenty apologists endlessly arguing for their respective world and tribal religions, with no success at changing the minds of others in the room. Into that room walks an atheist who denies any supernatural being exists. With one voice they all repeat the objections Rauser just made. The atheist is quickly led out of the room, whereupon they continue their endless religious debates. One of the reasons I trust science to give us the answers is because religious believers cannot settle their own disputes. They have no agreed upon method. They have faith. Faith has no method. Atheists who deny any supernatural being might be wrong, but at least we have a good solid method that can help us know if a god exists coming from the results of science.

In “John’s hypocrisy, part 1” Rauser continues by claiming my arguments depend upon personal incredulity since I try to let believers know how bizarre the whole Christian story is. In one section I merely tell believers what theologians and apologists have concluded about their faith. I think believers should know, that’s all. I think prospective converts should know. Since I have argued that an outsider, a non-believer, would find the Christian story incredulous if the whole story is told, then the whole story should be told. What is wrong with a little theology lesson? Surely Rauser should welcome it. Or, does he object because the whole story seems much more bizarre than the simple gospel version preached to potential converts? Only he can say. My attempt was to simply tell the whole untold story.

Is personal incredulity a bad reason to reject something? It certainly can be if the evidence has enough weight to overcome it. It depends on the weight of evidence, and I think there is plenty of evidence against the whole Christian story. I wanted my readers, some whom are devout Christians, to get a sense of what the Christian story sounds like to someone who had never heard it before. I did this as best as I could. I wanted Christians to see how bizarre it sounds when we dig deeper into what that story commits theologians and apologists to. It might force them to dig deeper, to doubt their delusion, since there is overwhelming evidence against it. Delusions allow people to believe against the overwhelming evidence, so in order to help them begin to doubt we must present the story in new but true and accurate ways. And I did that. Sure, at times I used a bit of exaggerated rhetoric, but the whole story is THAT bizarre!

Rauser compares what I do in this section to someone saying:
John would no doubt be outraged by a Christian fundamentalist who snidely dismisses Neo-Darwinian evolution with the quip “I’m not gonna let no evolutionist make a monkey outta me!”
Appealing to the personal incredulity of a fundamentalist with regard to the probability that his ancestors were chimpanzees is emphatically not the same thing. You see, what I did was to tell the truth about Christian theology. I went deeper. I want Christian believers to go deeper. I want them to read the Bible. I want them to become better educated about their faith. And I want them to be better informed about evolution too. It has been said that people don’t need to be argued into accepting evolution. All they need to do is understand it. Once it’s understood one cannot help but accept it. That’s what I’m arguing for in both cases. A deeper understanding will lead believers away from their faith and a deeper understanding will lead them to accept evolution. There’s no hypocrisy here.

I’ll quote Rauser on "John’s hypocrisy part 2":
As if one glaring example of hypocrisy were not enough, I cannot help note one more. Over the years John must have declared hundreds of times that Christians should not talk merely about what is possible but what is probable. Here’s a typical example:
“I’ve heard it all. And it disgusts me. Christians demand that I must show their faith is impossible before they will see that it is improbable. This is an utterly unreasonable demand.”
But now consider how he reacts to purported miracle claims in the essay under review:
“What believers must show is that an alleged biblical miracle could not have happened within the natural world because it was impossible (or else it’s not considered miraculous).” (102)
Really? How about I take John’s first statement and turn it back on his dismissal of miracles:

“I’ve heard it all. And it disgusts me. Atheists demand that I must show a natural explanation of a miracle claim is impossible before they will see that it is improbable. This is an utterly unreasonable demand.”
For the record, in that section of my chapter I was summarizing other things I had written about, a section that took up merely 6 pages. So he shouldn’t expect a full explication of what I wrote in those six pages. They are defended elsewhere as I said, in my other books. Nonetheless, here is the entirety of what I wrote about miracles, where I was stating what Christians must believe:
That miracles took place even though believing in them demands a near impossible double burden of proof. What believers must show is that an alleged biblical miracle could not have happened within the natural world because it was impossible (or else it’s not considered miraculous). Then they must turn right around and claim such an impossible event probably took place anyway. The probability that an alleged miracle took place is directly proportional to the probability that such an event could take place (i.e., the less probable it is that a miracle could take place, then the less probable it is that it did take place), so the improbability of a miracle claim defeats any attempt to show that it probably happened. That’s why miraculous claims in the Bible can never be proof for the existence of that God, for in order to accept such a claim by a writer in the prescientific past, a person mustalready believe in a miracle-working God who did these particular kinds of miracles. (p. 102)
I am not saying that Rauser “must show that a natural explanation of a miracle claim is impossible before atheists will see that it is improbable.” I am merely saying that by definition, to be considered a miraculous event, said event must not be one that has a natural cause. If it has one then by definition is cannot be a miraculous event. To rephrase it I was saying: "What believers must show is that an alleged biblical miracle could not have happened within the natural world because it was impossible on natural grounds alone to occur (or else it’s not considered miraculous). An so on.

There are books written about the definition of a miracle, most notably The Concept of Miracle by Richard Swinburne, which Rauser probably agrees with. We would have to discuss this at a greater length at another time.

The one section in my chapter Rauser did not comment on was the one where I claimed that defending the faith makes brilliant people look stupid. Since he gave that section a pass, so will I.