What statement is aimed at you more often than any other?
For me, it’s “You must be crazy.” or some variation thereof. And more often than not, the stimulus is my religious beliefs. The person casting the aspersions on my sanity deems them “irrational,” the great majority of those who hold them as “stupid and gullible,” and your not-terribly-humble Curmudgeon Emeritus as willingly deluded – insane.
People differ about what constitutes insanity, and what constitutes persuasive or conclusive evidence thereof. Antitheists have regarded religious convictions, especially Christian religious convictions, as evidence of lunacy for a long time now. It makes them a little nutty to confront a Christian of demonstrably high intelligence and a record of achievement. That a devout Catholic, arguably the most mystically oriented of all Christian denominations, can argue with them calmly makes them froth at the mouth.
I tried to capture a little of this in a segment of Polymath:
“Quarter for your thoughts?” Redmond said.
“Huh? I thought it was ‘penny for your thoughts.’”
“Time was. I’ve adjusted it for inflation.”
“Mmph. Okay. Well, I was just wondering about…” His courage failed him.
Redmond turned a final corner, pulled into the Iversons’ driveway, set the parking brake and turned toward him. “About me and the church, right?”
Todd blushed and nodded.
“Because you don’t believe.”
“And you’re smart and you know it. But by now you know that I’m at least as smart, and it flummoxes you. Because you just can’t imagine how anyone with half a brain could buy into such a load of total nonsense, much less someone who’s as smart as you.”
Todd remained silent. He fought to keep his expression from revealing his thoughts.
Redmond smiled gently. “What would you say were the most important words in that little speech, Todd?”
“Would you like me to repeat it?”
Todd shook his head. “Uh, no, it’s just that…”
“You’d rather not think about it?”
Todd’s discomfort deepened further.
Redmond’s smile turned impish. “Or maybe you’re a wee bit off balance from my having read your mind like a large-print book?”
Todd started to laugh. He couldn’t help it. In a moment he’d surrendered to a gale of laughter, holding his sides against the spasms from his own guffaws.
When he’d regained control of himself, he shook his head and caught Redmond’s eyes with his own. The engineer was still smiling gently.
“Wasn’t it like that for you?” Todd said. “I mean, from everything I’ve heard about you—”
“From your classmates?”
Todd nodded. “Sideways, mostly. Some from Rolf and the others in the group. You had to have had the same reaction to…to this stuff that I had. It can’t be true!”
“Can’t.” Hold onto that word. Scrutinize it. Plumb its implications. Then ask the critical question:
Replies fall into the following categories:
- “It just can’t,” which speaks of a lack of mental agility;
- “Well, nothing like that has happened since then,” which is a claim that singular events, which human power cannot replicate, are therefore impossible;
- “It’s irrational,” which is an evaluation similar to #2 above.
Now things get interesting.
Human power is formidable. Our aggregate capital of knowledge and technology enables us to do many things. Yet we have limits. Moreover, there are reports of events that appear permanently beyond our aspirations. Some of those reports concern the miracles, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
In the physical sciences, a report of something is not considered evidence; the thing must be directly observed to count as data. However, historians take a different approach. They look for contemporaneous reports, eyewitness testimonies, and other sorts of confirmation. Enough of these and the report of an event, however incredible, garners some credence. The Gospels, which are the primary testimonies to the life and works of Christ, have been multiply confirmed by roughly contemporaneous non-Scriptural sources. While those non-Scriptural writers did not witness Jesus’s miracles, nor his Passion and Resurrection, they were able to gather eyewitnesses to some of them, most critically Jesus’s return to life after His Crucifixion. That entitles the Gospel accounts to a degree of credibility.
Is it possible that the Gospels and the events they relate are mere fantasies? Yes. Is it likely? That’s a personal decision. But the Gospels themselves are evidence. He who accepts them as true and trustworthy is in no worse a position, rationally, than is he who rejects them.
The implications of the evidence are equally open to dispute. Moreover, some of those implications are rather strong – too strong for many:
- That Jesus was what He said He was: the Son of God.
- That therefore He possessed divine authority.
- That therefore, his preachments are also authoritative.
To puzzle out and accept the implications of a collection of evidence is to perform an act of rationality. Indeed, it’s the quintessential act of rationality.
Where, in all this, is faith?
Faith – the willingness to accept a proposition that can neither be falsified nor verified – lies in the acceptance of the evidence as trustworthy. The consequent willingness to accept its implications is merely rational. However, the rational believer must be ready to confront counter-evidence if it should arise. Counter-evidence is evidence in its own right, and must be evaluated on its own merits. Its implications are subject to the same standard.
The determined antitheist could argue that counter-evidence to the Gospel stories is impossible at this late date. However, historians determined to disprove the Gospel narratives have access to the past on the same basis as do those who accept the Gospels. If there are accounts from the classical era that would tend to dispute the Gospel accounts, they should be subject to the same evidentiary standard as the Gospels themselves. Confirmations should be sought, eyewitness testimonies aggregated, and so forth.
As a sidelight, consider this statement from the Koran:
The Messiah, son of Mary, was nothing but a messenger; [other] messengers have passed on before him. And his mother was truthful. They both used to eat food. Look how We make the signs clear to them; then look how they are deluded. (Surah Al-Ma’idah, 5:75)
That assertion was made by Islam’s central figure, the prophet Muhammad. Does it constitute counter-evidence to the divinity of Jesus? Christians, aware that the Koran is filled with dubious assertions (and many exhortations to violence against “unbelievers”) reject it – among other reasons because it was penned six centuries after the events recorded in the Gospels. However, Muslims accept the Koran as the literal Word of Allah; that’s their act of faith. They infer other things from it that are beyond the scope of this rant. But one cannot argue with either group’s premise – i.e., whether the statement is to be accepted as true or rejected as false – for that is a matter of faith.
Rational argument requires that the contenders agree on a set of common premises, especially what constitutes evidence. But the premises of a faith are peculiar to those who hold that faith. This puts the Christian and the disputant in a pickle. They might want to argue, but as they differ on premises – specifically, their attitude toward the evidence – they’re stopped at the starting gate. What’s possible thereafter is only disagreement.
Much of the disagreement has been disagreeable. It’s unnecessary, unfortunate, and avoidable. But those are subjects for another time.