Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Anti-evidentialism and Christian Science

Among other things, Christian Science adherents believe that evil is an illusion. It is quite clear to the rest of us that their belief that evil is an illusion does not make evil disappear. It simply mires them in the illusion that evil is an illusion.

Unfortunately, anti-evidential theories regarding Christian belief and apologetics are rather like Christian Science. For example: The evidentialist will be told that his view of Christian belief is defective because it does not "give" people absolute certainty, whereas on some other theory we Christians have absolute certainty of, say, the truth of the Gospel. But a metatheory about what we have cannot give us that thing! Saying that we have absolute certainty doesn't give us absolute certainty. The question is whether the theory is true. If it is false, then saying that we have absolute certainty is simply pretending that we can dismiss residual decimal points of uncertainty by disbelieving in them, rather as a Christian Scientist thinks that he can make evil disappear by disbelieving in it.

To be clear, I think that sometimes the problem is at least partly terminological. The evidentialist can and does often say that we can have what used to be called "moral certainty"--that is, that my belief that Jesus rose from the dead can be overwhelmingly strongly justified. After all, I don't have absolute, Cartesian certainty that I had a cup of coffee for breakfast this morning or that the sun will rise tomorrow. That doesn't make these things uncertain in some invidious sense--that is, it does not make them shaky. But such assurances are usually not enough for the advocates of "absolute certainty," who think that we are somehow short-changing ourselves as Christians by not declaring ourselves to have absolute certainty.

In a related vein, I was asked recently about the alleged problem that, on an evidential view, some Christians are not in fact well-justified in their Christian faith. I find the objection puzzling. Can I simply make it the case that all Christians are well-justified in their Christian belief by declaring it to be so? That is a kind of epistemic magical thinking. You don't make people well-justified by adopting a gerrymandered theory that says that they are all well-justified! Again, just as Christian Science doesn't make evil an illusion by declaring it to be an illusion, one cannot make people's lack of good justification for the Christianity they hold disappear by declaring that deficiency to be an illusion. I cannot make fideism into rational belief by waving a magic wand over it and declaring it to be a Good Thing.

To a large extent, Christians' lack of good reasons for Christianity is a result of contingency. (So is non-Christians' lack of good reasons, for that matter.) They haven't happened to come across the people or the books or the websites that tell them about the good evidence for Christianity. Sometimes they've been taught wrong, taught to base their belief on private experience or blind faith. To use somewhat more Catholic terminology, their "formation" has been defective. That isn't their fault, but it is a tragedy, and declaring it to be no problem doesn't make it no problem. It's entirely possible to have a shaky basis for your Christian faith, not because the evidence available is shaky (see previous paragraph), but because you haven't happened to be told the evidence.

One final note. We must not confuse epistemic justification with theological justification. The evidentialist who deplores the widespread fideism and lack of information in the church today is not saying that all these people are going to hell even though they think they are going to heaven. God doesn't say, "You can't be saved if you don't have a good argument for believing in me." God, in His infinite humility, accepts the saving faith of people who, through bad teaching, think that He has given them far less evidence than He has really given.

Unfortunately, people do far too often deconvert from Christianity when their faith is not well-grounded in fact. This is even more likely now in the age of the Internet, nor are the young the only ones who are vulnerable. So if you have any worries or doubts about the ultimate salvation of the man who changes from being a self-styled Bible-believing Christian to being an outspoken atheist, you should be concerned about evidences. This, however, is not because God doesn't allow people to go to heaven if they believe in Him on the basis of insufficient evidence.


Kristor said...

I've been getting this kind of thing a lot lately. Interlocutors will argue that I'm putting Greek philosophy "before" revelation, when all I've done is point out that the metaphysical doctrine under which they interpret Scripture is somehow logically incoherent, and thus unlikely to be derivable from any near-fetched exegesis. I mean, the Prophets and Apostles may not have been unadulterated Platonists, sure; but that doesn't mean they were unable to think.

Where does this come from, this idea that we *ought* to take off our thinking caps when it comes to faith? Is it coming from people who have themselves been poorly catechized?

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, partly, but I think it may also arise from a kind of "particularist" approach to epistemology. The idea is that we pick out instances of things that we say are well-justified epistemologically and then build our theory around those.

Now, though I am a diehard "methodist" as it's called, I can at least understand something of the appeal of this when the "particulars" in question are propositions like, "The external world exists," "My hands are currently in front of me," and the like.

Where it gets counterintuitive from any point of view (as far as I'm concerned) is where we say, "Miss Smith's belief that Jesus lives in her heart is a paradigm case of an epistemically well-justified belief, and we must build our epistemic theory from the top down in such a way that it comes to that conclusion regarding Miss Smith's religious beliefs." I'm thinking _why_? I mean, what if Miss Smith were a sweet old Hindu and believed in eternal reincarnation with approximately as much reason for it? Why should Miss Smith #1 be a paradigm case of good justification and Miss Smith #2 not be? Or are all sweet little old ladies' religious beliefs automatically paradigm cases of well-justified beliefs, however crazy, so that if we also have Raelian Miss Smith #3 we have to say the same of her?

It just baffles me. Perhaps it's a kind of piety. If Miss Smith #1 is your godly Christian aunt, you understandably don't want to say that she doesn't have a very good reason to believe in God because her whole approach seems far too subjective.

I get that. But perhaps in that case what one should say is that Miss Smith #1 may have some kind of reasons that you just haven't figured out yet and that you're still working on it.