The Probability (or Improbability) of Christianity

It is sometimes claimed that atheist scientists are arrogant in their naturalistic view of the world. That they reject belief in the supernatural, including religious beliefs, is viewed as narrow-minded and haughty. After all, how can they possibly know that nothing exists beyond space, time, energy and matter?

To put this discussion in proper context, it’s essential to consider what we all mean when we propose statements of fact, or beliefs, about the world. When someone (atheist or religious believer alike) says: “I don’t believe in unicorns,” or “unicorns don’t exist,” or “I know there are no such thing as unicorns,” they’re not saying that they know with absolute certainty that they don’t exist. Why? Because it’s impossible to prove the non-existence of unicorns, just as it’s impossible to prove the non-existence of the supernatural. Both are logical possibilities, thus they can’t be rationally ruled out with absolute certainty. Yet no one (who’s sane, at least!) believes in the existence of unicorns. Why is that the case? It’s because their existence is highly improbable based on our past and present experience and observation of the world. One might rationally suspend judgment and be agnostic on the existence of unicorns, but in reality would we truly expect someone to say, “I can’t know that there are no unicorns. They may very well exist and we just don’t know it yet. Therefore I leave a fresh bale of hay in my backyard every morning just in case a unicorn should happen to trot by and be in need of a good meal”? Again, I would hope that most of us would find this unnecessary and consider it irrational, although technically it’s not illogical.

Atheists apply this same logic to the existence of the supernatural. They find its existence to be highly improbable based on our past and present cumulative experience and observation of the world. Richard Carrier states the naturalist’s line of reasoning toward this end supremely:

The cause of lightning was once thought to be God’s wrath, but turned out to be the unintelligent outcome of mindless natural forces. We once thought an intelligent being must have arranged and maintained the amazingly ordered motions of the solar system, but now we know it’s all the inevitable outcome of mindless natural forces. Disease was once thought to be the mischief of supernatural demons, but now we know that tiny, unintelligent organisms are the cause, which reproduce and infect us according to mindless natural forces. In case after case, without exception, the trend has been to find that purely natural causes underlie any phenomena. Not once has the cause of anything turned out to really be God’s wrath or intelligent meddling, or demonic mischief, or anything supernatural at all. The collective weight of these observations is enormous: supernaturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always lost; naturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always won. A horse that runs a million races and never loses is about to run yet another race with a horse that has lost every single one of the million races it has run. Which horse should we bet on? The answer is obvious.

Despite the weight of this evidence and the overwhelming justification for disbelief in the supernatural, most Americans persist in their credulity and continue to maintain that their religious faith is reasonable and is the best explanation of the cumulative evidence of our experience and observation of the world. Most are Christians who have very specific beliefs about the nature of the cosmos based on their belief in the Bible as divine revelation as well as the traditional teachings of what they accept as Christian orthodoxy. (More on the relativity of Christian orthodoxy later.) How many of these mostly well-meaning folks ever truly consider the implications of their beliefs from the standpoint of probability? They do this for all the other beliefs that they form about the world and its circumstances, so why not apply it to their own religious faith?

Toward this very end, John Loftus, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School graduate and blogger at Debunking Christianity, recently came up with a list of beliefs that most Christians share about reality. He entitled his post, Reality Check: What Must be the Case if Christianity is True? Hopefully he won’t mind if I reprint the list here. After reading it, consider the question: who truly is more arrogant in claiming to know truths about ultimate reality–atheists or Christian theists? Which worldview is more supported by probability and justified belief? Which one is closer to the unicorns on the theoretical probability scale?

1. There must be a God who is a simple being yet made up of three inexplicable persons existing forever outside of time without a beginning, who therefore never learned anything new, never took a risk, never made a decision, never disagreed within the Godhead, and never had a prior moment to freely choose his own nature.

2. There must be a personal non-embodied omnipresent God who created the physical universe ex-nihilo in the first moment of time who will subsequently forever experience a sequence of events in time.

3. There must exist a perfectly good, omnipotent God, who created a perfectly good universe out of a desire/need to glorify himself by rewarding in heaven the few human beings who just got lucky to believe by being born at the right time and place, and who will condemn to hell those who do not believe.

4. That the highest created being, known as Satan or the Devil, led an angelic rebellion against an omnipotent omniscient omnibenelovent omnipresent God, and expected to win–which makes Satan out to be pure evil and dumber than a box of rocks.

5. That there was a first human pair (Adam & Eve) who so grievously sinned against God when tested that all of the rest of us are being punished for it (including animals), even though no one but the first human pair deserved to be punished. If it’s argued that all of us deserve to be punished because we all would have sinned, then the test was a sham. For only if some of us would not have sinned can the test be considered a fair one. But if some of us would not have sinned under the same initial conditions then there are people who are being punished for something they never would have done.

6. That although there are many other similar mythological stories told in Ancient Near Eastern Literature that pre-date what we read in the Bible, the stories in the Bible are about real events and real people.

7. That although we see completely different perspectives and evolving theologies in the Bible, including many things that are barbaric and superstitious to the core, it was authored by one divine mind.

8. That when it comes to verifiable matters of historical fact (like the Exodus, the extent of the reign of David, Luke’s reported world-wide census, etc) the Biblical stories are disconfirmed by evidence to the contrary as fairy tales, but when it comes to supernatural claims of miracles that cannot be verified like a virgin birth and resurrection from the grave, the Bible reports true historical facts.

9. That although a great number of miracles were claimed to have happened in the different superstitious cultures of the ancient world, only the ones in the Bible actually happened as claimed.

10. That an omniscient God could not foresee that his revealed will in the Bible would lead believers to commit such atrocities against others that reasonable people would conclude there is no divine mind behind the Bible. I call this The Problem of Miscommunication.

11. That God created human beings with rational minds that require evidence before they accept something, and yet this same God does not provide enough evidence but asks them to have faith instead.

12. That although people around the world are raised in different cultures to believe in their particular god(s) there is only one God and he will judge all people based upon whether or not they believe Jesus is Lord.

13 That Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy even though there is not one passage in the Old Testament that is specifically fulfilled in his life, death, and resurrection that can legitimately be understood as a prophecy and singularly points to Jesus as the Messiah using today’s historical-grammatical hermeneutical method.

14. That although there were many false virgin birth claims about famous people (like Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Plato) mythical heroes (like Mithra, Hercules) and savior gods (like Krishna, Osiris, Dionysus) in the ancient world, Jesus was really born of a virgin.

15. That while there is no rational explanation for how a person can be 100% man and 100% God, and although ancient pagan superstitious people believed this can take place (Acts 14:11-12; 28:6), Jesus was incarnate God in the flesh.

16. That while the results of science are assured when it comes to chemistry, physics, meteorology, mechanics, forensic science, medical science, rocket science, computer science, and so forth, when it comes to evolutionary science that shows all present life forms have common ancestors, or when science tells us that dead bodies do not arise from the grave because total cell necrosis is irreversible, the results of science are wrong because the Bible says otherwise.

17. That although there is no rational explanation for why Jesus had to die on the cross to atone for our sins, his death atoned for our sins.

18. That although historical reconstructions of the past are are notoriously difficult because they depend on the poor evidence of history, and even though historians must assess that evidence by assuming a natural explanation for it, and even though historical evidence can never establish how to view that evidence, the Christian faith can be established historically anyway. My argument is that when it comes to miraculous claims, yesterday’s evidence no longer can hold water for me, for in order to see it as evidence, I must already believe in the framework that allows me to see it as evidence. In other words, in order to see yesterday’s evidence as evidence for me, I must already believe the Christian framework that allows me to see yesterday’s evidence as evidence for Christianity.

19. That although there is no cogent theodicy that can explain why there is such ubiquitous and massive human and animal suffering if a perfectly good omnipotent God exists, God is perfectly good and omnipotent anyway.

20. That while scientific tests on petitionary prayers have produced at best negligible results and at worst completely falsified them, God answers these kinds of prayers anyway.

21. That even though Christianity shows evidence that it is nothing but a cultural by-product of human invention there is a divine mind behind it anyway.

22. That Jesus is the Son of God even though the textual evidence in the New Testament conclusively shows that the founder of the Jesus cult was a failed apocalyptic prophet who prophesied that the eschaton would take place in his generation, which would involve a total cosmic catastrophe after which God inaugurates a literal kingdom on earth with the “Son of Man” reigning from Jerusalem over the nations.

23. That although there can be no moral justification for the sufferings of animals in this created world, a perfectly good God created this world anyway. We don’t even see God’s care for the lower animals in his supposed revealed word, which is described in Psalm 119 as his “perfect will.” Think otherwise? Then read what I wrote here.

24. That although the only method we have for determining the truth in factual matters is methodological naturalism, which assumes a natural explanation for any phenomena, and although this method is the hallmark of the sciences, the phenomena of the Bible can be exempted from this method as applied through Biblical Criticism, and believed anyway.

25. That although God’s supposed revelation in the canonical Bible is indistinguishable from the musings of an ancient, barbaric, superstitious people, the Bible is the word of God. As SilverBullet recently said: “…the lord doesn’t work in mysterious ways, but in ways that are indistinguishable from his non-existence. It seems to me that there is nothing in the Christian scriptures, no sentence, paragraph, or idea, that couldn’t be anything more than the product of the humans alive at the time that the apparently divinely inspired scriptures and ideas were “revealed”. Sure, its possible for a god to reveal himself in an inspired book, and throughout history, in ways that are indistinguishable from the work of human minds and human minds alone. But how probable does that seem to you?”

26. That although it’s claimed God got the attention of Abraham, Moses, the Pharaoh, Gideon, Mary, Joseph, and Saul (who became Paul) and that he knows how to get the attention of anyone and everyone, there is no objective evidence he’s trying to get the attention of the billions of people who don’t believe. In fact, Christians are much more concerned than God is that non-believers are converted. Just compare the lengths to which Christians will go in order to convert non-believers, with a God who has the means to convert everyone and yet does nothing to help them do this. If you say God is helping to convert non-believers then tell us how to objectively know God is actually doing this.

27. Christianity is a faith that must dismiss the tragedy of death. It does not matter who dies, or how many, or what the circumstances are when people die. It could be the death of a mother whose baby depends upon her for milk. It could be a pandemic like cholera that decimated parts of the world in 1918, or the more than 23,000 children who die every single day from starvation. These deaths could be by suffocation, drowning, a drive-by shooting, or being burned to death. It doesn’t matter. God is good. Death doesn’t matter. People die all of the time. In order to justify God’s goodness Christianity minimizes the value of human life. It is a pro-death faith, plain and simple.

28. That God’s punishments are good, right, and just, even though it means sinners are thrust into a surprisingly dangerous world, and in death will be blindsided by an eternal punishment in hell, which is “Christianity’s most damnable doctrine.” In this world how do you think human beings first learned that venomous creatures like certain kinds of spiders, snakes, ants or scorpions could kill us? People/children had to die, lots of them. How do you think human beings first learned that polluted water or lead poisoning could kill us? Again, people/children had to die, lots of them. It was inevitable since God never told us what to avoid in order to stay alive. We had to learn these kinds of things firsthand. The same thing can be said for hell. People do not know their choices will send them to an eternal punishment in hell. For if we knew this, and if it was possible not to sin at all, we wouldn’t sin. Do you doubt this? Then consider that if you knew with certainty that by crossing a line drawn in the sand you would get beaten to a pulp by a biker gang, you would not do it!

29. When believers like Christians or Muslims contend their faiths are based on reason, one may simply object that this can’t be so because their god in fact doesn’t allow it. Using reason to arrive at any other belief than the correct one will earn you an eternity in hell. Thus, reason is an evil to be avoided….Blind, unquestioning, and unexamined belief is what the theist’s retributive god truly desires, not a belief grounded in reason. And yet they maintain Christianity is reasonable.

30. The Christian thinks there is an objective absolute morality that stems from their perfectly good God, which is both eternal and unchangeable. But the morality we find in the Bible is something quite different than what they claim. Morality has evolved. What we find in the Bible is not something we would expect from a perfectly good God, but Christians believe there is a perfectly good God anyway. So Christians must choose, either 1) hold to a philosopher’s god divorced from the historical realities of the Bible, or 2) continue to worship a moral monster.

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3 comments on “The Probability (or Improbability) of Christianity

  1. Sandy
    July 21, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    There are a lot of things I could say and try to refute points that you and others make in this post, but here’s what I’ll say instead. I’m sorry that this is what you think, Lucho. Do you have any hope at all? I struggle with doubts and questions often in my Christian faith, but as I walk daily with Jesus, I am fulfilled. And you’re right, I can’t prove it to you except maybe just by you observing my life (which is still troubled by sin, so maybe that’s what you’d see depending on the moment that you observe). The truth is, I have never known Jesus’s power and realness more than I have known it in the past several years, and I continue to see how deep and unsearchable it is. Lucho, I love you and I’m praying for you, friend.

  2. Louis
    July 21, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

    Sandy,

    So good to hear from you! I hope this finds you, Jeremiah and family well. Thanks for commenting. Would you be willing to share some of your thoughts on the points in the post? I’m always eager to have a dialogue with those who are willing.

    To answer your question (assuming it wasn’t rhetorical), I have more hope in my life than ever before. I alone have the responsibility and freedom to make the decisions that will bring my loved ones and me true joy and fulfillment–right here and right now. I cherish every moment as precious and invaluable since this earthly life is all that I’m assured.

    -Lucho

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  1. 2010 in Review: My Blog in Numbers « The Enchanted Naturalist - January 2, 2011

    […] The Probability (or Improbability) of Christianity July 2010 2 comments 4 […]

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