Saturday 30 May 2015

Reader's Question: Why should anyone bother with Christianity?

Reader's Question: "Why should anyone bother with Christianity? Official, progressive Christianity is a dreadful thing. it told me growing I was a bad person and would never measure up. Most people like me have no use for it, because it has no use for them. It's quite by accident I bother with it at all."

My Response: Because it is true. At root that is the only reason to be a Christian; and if you do not believe it is true then you are not a Christian (and probably should not be a Christian if or until you believe it is true - because why should anyone structure their lives around untruth?).

Then the question moves onto what does it mean to believe something is true?

My belief is that we are not talking about being overwhelmed by evidence - because evidence *never is* overwhelming in any situation or in relation to any subject.

With Christianity there is evidence in favour, and against - so a personal decision is necessary, inevitable, and intended.

With belief, I am talking about an inner confidence, which is experienced as a personal revelation from God. That is the proper basis of Christianity (but only the basis).

Of course there are innumerable advantages to being a Christian; but its being true is the one essential.

Then we move onto what may be the very difficult task of joining a church, a denomination. As you say, official, mainstream, progressive Christianity is a dreadful thing; so I would say the new Christian is likely to find either a relatively small, relatively weak, relatively obscure church (or else join a beleaguered minority within one of the official, mainstream churches). Or no church at all - which is my current situation.


Note added: Perhaps the most difficult aspect is: what is the Christianity which is supposed to be evaluated as true or not-true?

There are so many answers to this, so many ways of giving an answer, that the outsider is bewildered. Some people give the answer as a list of propositions, other as a philosophical doctrine, others as a story - so part of knowing if it is true is deciding the kind of truth that Christianity is.

My understanding is that Christianity is (more or less, and at root) a (true) story about relationships - but that itself is making a choice between rival ways of expressing the truth.  



ajb said...

"because evidence *never is* overwhelming in any situation or in relation to any subject"

It seems to me there is overwhelming evidence for all sorts of things. Certainly, there is more or less of it.

Some examples. That I am typing on a laptop. That I walked in the forest this morning. That there is a moon.

Similarly, there are specific situations where I am overwhelmed by evidence of something. That there are geese flying nearby. That there is a mountain up ahead. That there is a creek rushing out of sight.

If these things can be overwhelming, why is it that evidence of God must be 'in the balance', hard to decipher, and so on?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - You could be insane, you could be lying.

If I did not want to be convinced by what you say, I could disbelieve anything you said.

ajb said...

Insane or lying about there being a moon?

Are you seriously holding that belief?

Or that there is a sun? Or that there is an earth? And on and on.

It is one thing to say you 'could' disbelieve these things, but I think that's mere rhetoric.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I am completely serious - you need to think harder about this instead of just assuming 'it's obvious'. These are the reasons that people give for not accepting evidence as being overwhelming.

Many/ most people among Western modern intellectual elites do not accept that there are innate psychological differences between men and women, or that intelligence is mostly inherited... you know the kind of thing.

They say there isn't enough evidence, that the other side are politically motivated liars, incompetent etc.

If you are on the inside of a real, serious dispute, there is never' enough' evidence to settle disputes. In the words of the old song, 'there are more questions than answers'. For every question answered, the other side can just keep asking 'why'.

Every study has assumptions which can be challenged. Every study has flaws and loopholes. Every theory is a (gross) simplification. Every definition is made of terms which themselves need defining.

Human dishonesty and errors are always possibilities.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

AJB is right, Bruce. I know it is possible in principle to doubt that there is a moon, but nobody does, because the evidence for its existence is overwhelming. That's not to say that we can be 100% certain; just that the evidence for the moon's existence is so strong that it overwhelms any purely academic doubts we might come up with.

The evidence for innate psychological differences between men and women, while very strong, is much less overwhelming than the evidence that the moon exists. This is partly because the differences are statistical in nature (e.g. men are generally more aggressive than women, but some women are more aggressive than some men), and partly because of the difficulty of proving that a difference is "innate" (i.e., predetermined at birth, before they can be observed).

The evidence that the universe was created by a loving God is even less compelling, and there is also a lot of very obvious evidence against that proposition.


You never made a "personal decision" to believe in the existence of the moon. Only in the context of an abstract discussion like this one would it even occur to you that a decision was called for. You just believed it, like everyone else does, because the evidence is overwhelming.

In the case of innate psychological differences between the sexes, you presumably had to spend some time examining the available evidence and consciously making a judgment -- but that judgment is the only reasonable one to draw. Those who deny such differences are either misinformed, irrational, or dishonest. Their "decision" to disbelieve something that is firmly supported by evidence simply is not as legitimate as your decision to believe it -- even though they could in principle be right (because nothing is ever 100% certain blah blah blah).

But believing in Christianity is different from either of the above beliefs. Would you say that the available evidence regarding Christianity is such that it would be irrational not to conclude that Christianity is true? I don't think so. The evidence is, as I think you would concede, decidedly underwhelming. A personal decision really is necessary in order to believe.

By lumping all kinds of beliefs together and saying that they are all in principle subject to doubt, you obscure important differences between ordinary "knowledge" on the one hand and religious faith on the other.

Bruce Charlton said...


You and Anthony are missing the point - so it is counter-productive for me to follow the agenda that you and he are trying to set before me.

The reason you are missing the point is a state of mind that I recognize well from my own personal history, and which I have often tried to refute in my blog posts - but it is just a very difficult point to get across.

My point is that it is a mistake, a lethal mistake, to focus on 'the evidence'. This mistaken idea comes from a profound misunderstanding about science, and about how science works, including the idea that there is a scientific method.

Another way into it is to say 'compared with what?' - when what is under comparison is the system of thought that constitutes Christianity, and other systems of thought. We are, you see, talking about systems of thought - and not free-standing, atomic propositions such as the existence of the moon.

This kind of talk is just an error - very misleading, destructive, nihilistic. This is not how we think or how we believe - not even remotely so.

It was a profound insight of the CJCLDS to base the Mormon religion on reading the Book of Mormon and praying for a personal revelation about its validity, its 'truth'.

That is *exactly* the way that the human mind works, and captures the nature of belief - especially religious belief.

Because that kind of belief is of a system not a fact, it has multiple branching ramifications, it structures thought and understanding, it is dynamic and not static, it is of the heart and not the head, it allows for flexibility, change and development, evolution and improvement in future knowledge and so on.

Take *that* as a *model* for actually, practically, in reality understanding and believing the truth of Christianity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - On reflection I think I need to write more on metaphysics; and particular the modernist tactic of Metaphysical Attack - which is, I think what robbed you of your faith. In other words, you lost confidence in your belief because you lost confidence in your assumptions.

Thordaddy said...

Those who reject Christianity are actually rejecting the empirical claim that The Perfect Man preached on earth AND WILLINGLY walked through life taking every right step. This belief is what offends and terrifies all variants of radical liberationist. The degree to which this denial travels is from a naive disbelief that no man could ever willingly walk ALL the RIGHT steps in life all the way to the very radicals who violently deny that "right" even exists. So Jesus Christ isn't just a false claim. He'a a false claim centered around sheer antithetical belief to the radical liberationist. To the radical liberationist, Perfection is irredeemably abhorrent and evil.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Bruce, perhaps I never really "got it." I always saw apparent personal revelations as one kind of evidence among others, not as something entirely different which makes evidence irrelevant.

Thordaddy said...

My point...

When one claims that the evidence for The Perfect Man is so underwhelming as to deny EVEN IN PRINCIPLE man's will to do all right...

Then you are voluntarily confined to an infinite regress and your "belief" is like an infection seeking to imprison others in a perpetual degeneracy.

Andrew said...

Perhaps a different question - I agree that, at least in theory, personal revelation is the most important thing. How does one know that something is personal revelation and not just emotion, mental disease, demonic influence, etc.? Some sources suggest demons are capable of doing a very good impersonation.

Adam G. said...

*I know it is possible in principle to doubt that there is a moon, but nobody does, because the evidence for its existence is overwhelming.*

Wrong. Nobody does, because there is no advantage to doing it. If acknowledging the existence of the moon meatn some kind of personal commitment, its existence would be problematized.

the imitations can be quite good, until you encounter the real thing. the experience of light and love flowing into your soul, your eyes weeping for happiness, your voice choked up, of wanting to deeply embrace anyone and everyone, of wanting to shout and holler while also wanting to be profoundly still--that experience self-authenticates.
but of course the Holy Ghost is not nearly always that dramatic. For that reason I find practice to be invaluable. Seek revelation in practical matters and smaller stuff, act on it, and see what the results are. Seek revelation about the results too. You will start to see those subtle threads that differentiate the spirit from your own wishful thinking and from malign whispers.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Andrew - Adams is a better answer than I could have given.

Another way to think about it is to consider what would count *against* a personal revelation - what is more valid than the kind of experience that Adam is describing.

There are a few things, under particular circumstances (for example: the word of a beloved and trusted spouse or close relative or priest assuring you that you are currently mentally ill (psychotic) - which confirms a deep sense of uneasiness which you already feel); but not many.

For most purposes and situations, a personal revelation is The Bottom Line.

Andrew said...

Thank you for the explanations. I didn't want to get too personal, but suppose one had too contra-indictory experiences about something? That is: a dream experience as Adam describes it, but then a nightmare about the exact same topic that seems to indicate the reverse.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...


"If acknowledging the existence of the moon meant some kind of personal commitment, its existence would be problematized."

I don't think so. If you have a child, acknowledging that child's existence implies an enormous personal commitment -- but even the worst parents don't try to escape that commitment by denying the manifest fact that the child exists.

The existence of the government and the police also entail commitments (you'd better obey the law, play your taxes, etc.) -- but sane people don't respond by questioning the very existence of the IRS and the police force.

Wishful thinking is a real thing, of course, but for sane people there are limits. They deny only what is deniable, only those things which they are not compelled by overwhelming evidence to acknowledge. The existence of the moon is not something sane people could deny, even if they were motivated to do so. The existence of God, on the other hand, is.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - The existence of the moon is a terrible example! It is just an appearance in the sky, which changes every day. The disagreement is over what causes that appearance, and that has had very large numbers of explanations.

Meanwhile, professional psychologists deny the reality of sex differences, and the heritability of such differences - which is something that almost everybody in the world knows from experience (not from 'science').

Things we know from actual personal experience are denied, and we are forced to live by these denials. This implies a different metaphysical system, but what that may be has to be inferred. The denials are not the system - but evidence of it.